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.

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On the first day of Euro 2012…non-goalscoring number nines and Arshavin

1.Who says number nines have to score?

When Aleksandr Kerzhakov screwed a shot wide on 70 minutes, it confirmed to everyone what they already knew; that he was going to be replaced. With the effort, he carried the unwanted – and previously unknown – distinction of being the first player in Euro history since records began, to attempt the most shots without hitting the target. But that shouldn’t mask what other good he did for the team. Granted, when Roman Pavlyuchenko entered the pitch in his place, he went more than one better, creating and scoring the two goals to make it a rout. But before that, Kerzhakov continually dragged the Czech defence and his tireless movement helped create space for the midfielders to run into.

I predicted before the tournament that the highest goalscorer will be a player who doesn’t conventionally operate as a number 9 before unwisely, at least, judging by this showing, go for Kerzhakov. But how much of Kerzhakov’s role consists of playing as a traditional number 9? Because it’s expected goals in Dirk Advocaat’s system come from all over – and certainly they broke with speed in midfield to support Kerzhakov – with Alan Dzagoev getting two, the second of which was created by Pavlyuchenko. Roman Shirokov got the other as a pass from Arshavin eluded Kerzhakov and trickled it’s way to him. In the other group game, Greece’s goal – after going down to ten men – was always planned to come from Dimitris Salpingidis as coach Fernando Santos, had him darting off from the right-flank at every opportunity. He also created the penalty with a similar move. In this case, the centre-forward’s role was mainly limited to a decoy for his runs. To try not to sound like apologising for Kerzhakov too much, he should have scored and his profligacy might have ultimately cost Russia at 2-1. But one might come to accept that centre-forwards don’t always have to score – if others do.

2.Warning: massive Arshavin apology

Russia’s 4-1 win over Czech Republic was exhilarating, exhibiting the kind of exuberance they showed in 2008 when they finally captured – after nearly two decades of obscurity – their total footballing heritage. They passed the ball quickly, poured forward in numbers and punished the Czechs when it mattered. Andrey Arshavin was superb, directing counter-attacks with sharpness. For his apologist, the win was a massive advert of what Arsenal did wrong. Except we can’t possibly excuse three years in which his numbers (except passing accuracy) were on the back of a match. Indeed, if he can play so well for Russia, what is it that makes it different at Arsenal?

For one, Arshavin relishes playing for his country; the responsibility of captaincy paradoxically liberating him. The other is the level of freedom he gets for Russia that he can’t possibly at Arsenal. Because for the national side, he’s the one player that’s capable of moments of spontaneity – and that kind of responsibility would be too much of Dzagoev – but for Arsenal, he is offered a degree of freedom but how much more can Wenger subsidise his role?

More appropriately, it’s that extra space he’s offered at international or Russian domestic level which he thrives on, particularly on the break. Perhaps, giving him a central role might have allowed him to do that at Arsenal, but patently, Wenger doesn’t see him as a playmaker. The Czech were naive to offer him that room – but they did so, because they thought they could go toe-to-toe with the Russians. In the Premier League, most teams approach Arsenal in an overly cautious manner thus 60+% of the game is played in their half. As such, it must be said Arshavin, simply hasn’t been able adjust to the lack of space in an Arsenal shirt. Indeed, Czech Republic realised their 4-1-4-1 was giving too much room on the break for him and a result, in the second-half, put on another holding midfielder, Thomas Hubschmann, to try and shore things up before the floodgates eventually opened again.

It was the partnership with Dzagoev, though, which caught the eye, interchanging freely with him in a way that Arshavin might not be afforded at Arsenal with Theo Walcott. The Gunners tried to do that more last season but not in real time and rather, at designated phases of the match. For Russia, they both figured wide in 4-3-3 initially but were tasked with roaming inside, at times resembling a Christmas Tree shape.

In turn, Arshavin thrilled and dazzled for Russia in a way all too familiar yet too far for the Gunners.

3.Poland’s Arsenal conundrum

Poland, hosting their first major sporting event, produced an atmosphere that was spine-tingling as it was inspiring. And as expected, their national team responded, using the nervous and excited energy to make an exhilarating start. They were relentless in the first-period, as they poured forward with pace and never allowed Greece to settle as they wanted to. However, in the second-half, they just couldn’t come out in the same fashion. Because once the novelty of hosting the first game set in, they looked ordinary and were soon pegged back through an equaliser and then a red card for Wojciech Szczesny.

In a sense, Poland’s second-half echoed the end of Arsenal’s season and the consequent conundrum they face for the next. Because The Gunners ended 2011/12 playing at a dizzyingly high-tempo that they can’t possibly retain for next season. Or if they do, they must do it in a more intelligent manner. Because from February,Arsenal managed to save their season by using the momentum in the race for third to devastating effect, approaching games with an intent that opponents couldn’t match. But they almost always let up in the second-half as that intensity is difficult to maintain. And as such, Wenger will be planning the next season with a hint of the unknown: does his team need to be unshackled and be forced into taking creative risks to play at it’s best? And considering how difficult that is to sustain as shown by the second-half of the campaign, it’s not a reasonable request to expect them to play like this all the time.

For Poland, the objective is more short-term. Because once the game settled, they showed their limitation and when asked to create, offered little in terms of cohesion apart from a selection of players. Łukasz Piszczek gave them a different dimension from right-back, Robert Lewandoski battled and bullied opposing defenders while Ludovic Obraniak only dazzled in glimpses. Host nations have always been empowered by their home crowd and it looks like Poland will need every one of their inhabitants to roar them on.

Arsenal player watch

Wojciech Szczęsny (2/10): The goalkeeper was relatively untested before Greece’s equaliser which he might have felt he should have done better. And his day – and possibly his tournament – came to a premature end when he was red-carded. Szczęsny has come far in a short space of time with not only his talent but his personality and he’s need every bit of that if he is to retain is his place once his suspension elapses.

Tomáš Rosický (5/10): Rosický showed neat the touches and turns that we have come to expect from him but was unable to deliver the telling passes to inspire his country. It was another long-haired schemer that impressed, however, for the Czech’s as Petr Jiráček outshone his captain.

Andrey Arshavin (7/10): The Russian captain seems to thrive playing for his country and he delivered once again, tormenting the Czech Republic defence and instigating breaks with pinpoint vision.

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.

Goalkeepers: undervalued, underpaid and priceless

If, as they say goalkeepers are mad, then they ought to have really started a union by now. They are an essential anatomy of a team along with the striker says José Mourinho in “Inside Sport: Can England win the next World Cup?” but they are not nearly as valued much. In the Premier League, Craig Gordon stands as the most expensive goalkeeper at £9million when he moved from Hearts to Sunderland but he is not even close to getting into the list of the all-time most expensive transfers in England. And he is still some way short of the £15million paid by Newcastle for Alan Shearer – some fourteen years ago now.

The justification for paying more for a striker than a goalkeeper seemingly follows the simple logic “that goals win games.” But if that really is the case, surely stopping goals is worth just as much? There is perhaps an issue of ignorance, as it is not obvious, in the same way as a forward, that goalkeepers are involved as much but that would go beyond ignorance. Indeed, Johan Cruyff mulled over the idea of fielding an outfield player between the sticks as coach of Barcelona but luckily his senses came to the fore. Managers and fans alike realise the true worth of goalkeepers but as indicated by West Ham’s strategy in 2009/10 under Gianfranco Zola, the goals they leaked was always an after thought to the goals they failed to score. Goalkeeping was just an impartial means of getting the result – and that was to score goals for the wins to stay up.

Robert Green is a competent goalkeeper but at no point was there to question his failings as opposed to that of Manuel Almunia. The Arsenal goalkeeper has come under the fiercest critics in the last two years and fans are baffled as to why he remained first choice for so long. Wojciech Szczęsny has gone some way to silencing those doubts but the Pole is still young and that brings with it inevitable inconsistencies that only time will slowly eradicate. Almunia is a solid pro and a humble personality but a club of Arsenal’s stature demand someone of exceptional talent and Almunia perhaps falls short.

Arsène Wenger’s failure to find a top quality goalkeeper suggests then, that supply of the top talent is at a paucity and therefore the high demand for the best forces the prices up – it’s basic economics – and too high for Wenger to want to compete. However for goalkeepers it doesn’t quite work like that.

In comparison with other outfield positions, there are definitely less goalkeepers in the market but with the one position out of eleven on offer, it then creates a market of inactive goalkeepers. Number two’s in others words, who are, in some cases, just as good but unable to command themselves for whatever reason. Wenger argues he has four good goalkeepers and if Almunia fails, which the Frenchman finally accepts has, either one can step up. (In this case, first Łukasz Fabiański was promoted to the club’s number one before injury allowed the number four at the start of the season, Wojciech Szczęsny, to jump to the top of the order). It also happened with Shay Given at the start of this season but although not necessarily because he was worse than Joe Hart; but because there was a danger Hart would fulfil his potential at another cub. Given has now got to make do sitting on the bench or move to a less ambitious side.

Goalkeepers have less bargaining power; they could either sit on the bench and train hard therefore trying to force their way into the reckoning or search for games elsewhere. “Most top keepers are not transient – they don’t float from team to team,” said former Arsenal goalkeeper John Lukic who had two spells at the club but the most notable was between 1983 and 1990 where he made 223 appearances at Highbury. “They go to a team and stay there. Their services are retained because they are that good – it’s as simple as that. Myself and Dave Seaman spent the best part of 20 years at the club, but look at the number of keepers they have had since then.” Age is another important factor as ‘keepers can have a career up to forty at the highest level and that is a reason why Arsenal were interested in signing veteran Mark Schwarzer, now 38.

Wenger’s problem with identifying a top quality goalkeeper is that he demands an all-rounder and for the sake of having a jack-of-all-trades, he is willing to skimp on the essentials. With the outlawing of the back-pass in 1992, goalkeepers have had to be more technical and in that respect Almunia excels. His kicking under pressure is excellent and is fantastic at rushing off his line to clear with his feet (although this season, the pressure is evidently getting to him and his mistake against West Bromwich Albion highlighted his serious lack of form). The Arsenal style means that it is essential to have a “sweeper-keeper” in goal because they play a high line that is susceptible to a pass or a run behind the defence and the goalkeeper being the last line of defence, they have to be alert to sweep up the danger. A ‘keeper like Given who has proven himself in the Premier League, may not be mobile enough to deal with that much of a responsibility because he has spent all his career standing on his own goal-line. The British culture of goalkeeping has been about safety first, so every high ball contested must be a catch otherwise it mustn’t be contested at all. Punching had usually been frowned upon, especially in regards to shots, but with the globalisation of the English League, it is now starting to become accepted. Nevertheless, the ball at the feet of an English goalkeeper still looks an an alien proposition.

As ever, goalkeeper is about mentality and that perhaps more than anything, determines their success. “Today, because of the athleticism, tactics , pressing and overused offside trap, many games are decided by a single goal scored on the break,” says legendary Italian Dino Zoff. “For the keeper to hope to make a difference in these kind of situations he must be strong mentally.”

Wenger talks of the “negative stress” on goalkeepers; that people tend to only focus on the bad things, the mistakes until a good save – but who knows when that will next happen? And what are the chances that, by the next shot, the negativity has not already eaten them up? Strikers are bound to get another chance. A keeper’s best efforts are determined by the defence in front of him – another factor which helps explain Wenger’s intransigence when it comes to the goalkeeping position. If you don’t trust your centre-forward there’s always someone else capable of scoring. But if you don’t trust your keeper, a nervousness will seep throughout the entire team and they start to overcompensate. To some degree, Almunia’s mistakes have come to grate Wenger and he realises the knock on effect this has on the unit. The failure to guard his near post in the 3-2 defeat to West Brom last September ultimately cost him his place in the team and gave a sluggish Arsenal too much to do. His mistake in the corresponding fixture last month knocked Arsenal’s title challenge back a bit as a potential turnaround at 0-1 became very quickly, 0-2 and thus a draw was the best outcome as opposed to a gettable win.

Manuel Almunia is in his thirties now, the age where goalkeepers are supposed to find their peak and most importantly, their sanity. It may be that he does although maniacal doesn’t necessarily account to insanity if Jens Lehmann is the case. However he’d probably have to find it somewhere else; the unpolluted air of Pamplona may be his calling or the sea breeze of Malaga but at the end of the season, he is set pack his bags, passing the gloves onto rookie Wojciech Szczęsny. But you’d never have guessed it if only you spend a second in his presence of the 20 year-old wearing Arsenal’s number 53. Szczęsny has the charisma that exudes success and being so assured at a young age has an added bonus for Arsenal. Feasibly the Pole can be The Gunners’ main man for 20 more years and he has hardly cost a penny having moved to the club from Legia Warszawa at the age of 15. Pepe Reina was 27 when Wenger “tried like mad” to sign him for what would have been a record £19million in the summer. That’s £2m every 10 years as opposed to next to nothing for 20 years with Szczęsny. Manchester United have also been using the same logic in their courtship of Atletico Madrid’s David De Gea, who is at the same age of Szczęsny, for when Edwin van der Sar retires.

It seems like Szczęsny can answer Arsenal’s goalkeeper problem for years to come but perhaps most of all this heavy scrutiny on the club’s goalkeeping situation indicates, is that there is now a greater realisation of the importance of goalkeepers – a fact made more apparent by the string of key goalkeepers unlikely to leave their clubs for less than £15million. It seems finally parity can be achieved in terms of wages and transfer prices for the men between the sticks.