Difference in possession philosophy defines Bayern Munich’s approach against Arsenal

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– Kroos’s excellent pass set up the key moment in the match
– Bayern Munich’s “sterile” domination a by-product of their technical superiority
– Wenger needs to improve his side’s ball-retention to really kick on

In the end, Arsenal’s Champions League aspirations were cut down to size by one glorious pass by Toni Kroos. The Bayern Munich midfielder, picking the ball up 10-yards outside the penalty box, lifted it over a static Arsenal defence who could not help but stand and watch, as if somebody had stopped time and simply placed the ball in the air and restarted time again. Arjen Robben, who initially played the pass to Kroos, was alive to the opportunity and pounced on the give-and-go, trapping the ball superbly and inducing Wojciech Szczesny into a foul. David Alaba missed the subsequent penalty but it was clear, having seen out Arsenal’s early storm, that the game would turn on that sending off and that one superb moment of vision from Kroos.

It’s not that Arsenal didn’t have the quality to get back into the game but that piece of inventiveness in a way, already highlighted the technical edge that Bayern held over Arsenal, at least at face value. It’s true that Arsene Wenger’s side could harbour much regret from the 2-0 defeat, especially from the way they started the game and then should have had the lead when on eight-minutes Mesut Ozil horribly messed up from the penalty spot. Still, Arsenal’s gameplan was working superbly for the first 15-20 minutes, unsettling Bayern on the ball and breaking quickly. They had lots of joy down the right, especially with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and then the targeted flick-ons from Yaya Sanogo and Bacary Sagna. But then, the game starting to settle into an ominous pattern: Bayern Munich increasingly began to monopolise possession and play the game outside Arsenal’s box. There were sporadic moments to attack after that but the crucial thing for Arsenal was that there were chances on the break; something which was taken away from Arsenal after the red-card before half-time. (To put into context how the game was taken away from Arsenal in the second-half, Bayern Munich completed 494 passes after the break. By comparison Arsenal managed just 38).

Technically, this Bayern Munich side is probably somewhere in between the two ball-hogging Barcelona sides which entertained Arsenal at the Emirates in 2010 & 2011, and the Bayern side which Arsenal faced last year. Indeed, in those matches, those teams found out that they couldn’t dominate The Gunners for the full ninety-minutes and as such, there was valid reason here for Arsenal to harbour great regret.

Yet, it was Bayern Munich’s superior technical quality – something that’s ingrained in their mentality much deeper than just being able to pass the ball accurately – which allowed them to assume the tie away from Arsenal.

In the past, Wenger has talked about this as sterile domination (most recently he has said this about Southampton, saying that their possession, in Arsenal’s 2-0 win in November, was an “illusion”); or in other words, passing the ball for passing sake. But for those sides, sterile domination isn’t an aim: it’s a by-product of their voraciousness to be better than the rest at manipulating the ball. In that sense, it’s a grave error for Wenger to continue dismissing the necessary-evil(?) of sterile domination. It forces teams back, and provokes teams to play, at 0-0, in a way that seems inherently defensive (anti-football even in some cases), and it makes it harder to counter-attack against them. Of course, in recent times, there’s been a movement against possession-fixated sides that has been used to great effect called counter-pressing, most devastatingly used by Bayern Munich in the Champions League against Barcelona. Arsenal have tried to adopt those methods to some degree this season and indeed, before the red card in this match.

The most piercing comment of the match was not, however, Wenger’s indignation of the triple-punishment that his side suffered after Robben’s “play-acting” but rather, the approach that he revealed pre-match that they were going to take, which was to defend first. That was him accepting that Bayern are the better side, which in itself is not new information, however, it should put to bed the notion that when two possession-based attacking sides meet, we’re likely to see a festival of goals. Indeed, it’s more likely we’ll see one team defend for large periods and the other try to weather the storm – and possibly after going a goal down, forced to react. That in itself is a bit of a regret: we rarely ever see two sides defined by possession go toe-to-toe on equal footing for the whole match: one is usually a cut above the other. The last I remember seeing such a game was in 2010 when Argentina defeated Spain 4-1 in a friendly with near 50-50 possession each. Other similar encounters, Arsenal’s 2-1 win at the Emirates in 2011 against Barcelona saw Arsenal only accrue 36% of the ball. That, though, after weathering a first-half Barca storm and then having to go Catenaccio in the aggregate defeat away. (Pep Guardiola’s Bayern against Tata Martino’s Barcelona might be the closest we come to seeing possession v possession).

Richard Whittall, editor of The Score, makes a similar point. When you see two sides like Arsenal and Bayern Munich, and then the comprehensive way Arsenal in which were erased from the match red-card after, you wonder why a team as technically proficient as The Gunners couldn’t react. Yet, it’s often forgotten that possession football is diverse – as diverse as the game itself – and usually the best teams are the ones who cultivate possession. In his piece, Whittall uses the example of Manchester City’s defeat 2-0 defeat to Barcelona, saying:

And yet ten minutes in last night, the illusion there is a single, homogeneous style in build-up play in Europe was undone by the clear juxtaposition of the lanky giants in Blue taking on the upright, two-touch-and-go efficiency of the boys in red and purple (what are Barca’s colours, exactly?). One of these teams was not like the other. One of them didn’t belong.

If that seems a little harsh an analogy to use on Arsenal, a team who under Wenger have captivated the world for over 15 years, consider Pep Guardiola’s dismissal of interchangeability and fluidity as a tactic. In a way, he could be dismissing Arsene Wenger’s style which is to grant players the freedom to move around the pitch when in the attacking-third. On the training ground, that’s cultivated by small sided games of 5v5, 7v7 etc. to encourage spontaneous combination play or by drills such as one called “through-play” whereby the team lines up as it would in a normal match but without opponents, so that the players can memorise where team-mates are intuitively and pass the ball between them. For Wenger, the main focus is on expressionism and autonomy. The importance of possession is preached of course but keeping the ball must have a means: patience is only tolerated to an extent.

Guardiola’s approach, however, is more scientific, more hands-on. Players must see the pitch as a grid, each occupying a “square” and making sure each one is filled. He says moving the ball is more important than the man moving as that’s the best way to work opponents. Thomas Muller explains: “It isn’t about having possession just for the sake of it, that’s not the concept. It’s about using possession to position the team in the opposition’s half in a way that makes us less liable to be hit on the break.

Guardiola’s methods are not to be used as a stick to beat Wenger with: he deserves to have faith in the way he works, while his Arsenal side is one that continues to play better football than most. Indeed, at 11 v 11 he had realistic reasons to expect that Arsenal could win this game. However, there are teams that are taking the game to new levels now, and watching the way Bayern Munich stretched the pitch, time after time creating overloads and opening up half-spaces, it’s little wonder that Arsenal weren’t able to get back in the game after Szczesny saw red.

**NB: Pep Guardiola after the match: “Today we again saw that it all depends on possession. We should have fought harder during the first ten minutes. It’s a question of personality; you need to want the ball. We are not a great counterattacking team, as we don’t have the physical requirements for that. We always need to have the ball, that’s what it boils down to.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podolski-Cazorla

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal place faith in brains over brawn

Alex Song’s £15million move to Barcelona, only days after the club announced the sale of Robin van Persie, means Arsenal have now covered the cost of investment on Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla entirely. As Gunnerblog writes; “it’s almost as if we planned it like this.”

Whether or not you feel this is good practice for a football club supposed to be competing for top honours doesn’t matter; the mood of the Arsenal online Diaspora seems to be a resounding “meh.”

That he has been described byBarcelona’s sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta, as a complete player. “Skillful and tactical, he is good on the ball and very fit. He has experience of top level competition and knows how to cope with high pressure and big demands”.” means little (which, at the same time is a good thing, as Arsenal fans have recently acquired a pathological obsession on dwelling on the past). As such I feel compelled to defend the legacy of a man whose Arsenal career can only be described as “unsung.”

It’s true that Alex Song has a tendency for the indiscipline – which might boil down to his excitable character – and last season, he did abandon some of his tactical duties. But it seems he has attracted an unfair proportion of the blame for the goals Arsenal conceded. Indeed, there’s this growing idea that Arsenal must play – or rather be better – with a sole holding player. Perhaps, but the growing demands on technique and fitness means increasingly, it should be about the team. And certainly, one can make an argument against the team’s shape for Song’s diminishing defensive statistics (and their goals allowed column).

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Because last season, Song simply had to do more for the team than he had in previous seasons. In 2009/10, he was the deepest midfielder, breaking down attacks and moving it along to one of the midfielders in front of him when he won it. In 2010/11, he shared the role with Jack Wilshere and as such was allowed to get forward intermittently, contributing with four goals. But even though Arsenal conceded more goals in that campaign than in the previous one, structurally it’s probably when they were at their most impressive (and the implosion in the last quarter made it look worse than it was). Last season, though, Song had no Wilshere and the dynamics of the double pivot changed. Arteta and Song shared roles without either player taking full responsibility so Song pushed up to do what Wilshere usually did; give impetus with his running and to dink passes – to more success – over the defence. And what’s more, Song was required higher up the pitch because for large chunks of the season, Arsenal lacked full-backs and as such it meant creativity was almost always central. The problem of creativity was further compounded by Wenger’s prolonged experimentation with a three-striker system up top (which continued to be a problem in their first fixture this season against Sunderland). In 2010/11, remember that Arsenal had Nasri to share the burden to create from out wide even if Cesc Fabregas did tend to monopolise creativity. Defensively, the relaxed pressing last season also made it easier for teams to turn Arsenal from back to front and as such, easier to get at the backline.

Nevertheless, it’s probably best not to look back but look forward instead to this season and with the departure of Song, it especially elevates the stature within the team of Arteta. If anything, he is now Arsenal’s ideologue – bright, opinionated (at Everton, he was known for having tactical discussions with the manager, David Moyes) and technical – he represents Arsene Wenger’s trust in brains over brawn.

Wenger described Arteta last season as a “real midfielder – that means he can defend and he can attack” and against Sunderland showed why the manager places so much faith in him. Arteta made 4 tackles and 4 interceptions as well as making over 100 passes but what was most impressive was the intensity of which he covered ground. A couple of times he filled in for his centre-back and even got into the position when tracking back which I like to call the “third centre-back”.

[image lost] Via @1DavidWall: Arteta (8) played the deepest of Arsenal’s three starting central midfielders, with Cazorla (19) pulling the strings.

On the training ground, Arsenal have been working very hard on holding their shape and keeping/moving the ball better and that, Wenger sees, is the remedy to both their attack and defence. Because it’s as Athletic Bilboa coach, Marcelo Bielsa, says; “attacking football has nuances” and it’s controlling and understanding those nuances – how to dictate tempo and the dangers to expect when you lose it – which will make Arsenal better.

The two players who have submitted to this creed the most – talking extensively about team shape in interviews – are the team’s two leaders: Thomas Vermaelen and Arteta. (Robin van Persie similarly believed in moving as a team and led by example through his running to get back into position when the team defends, acting as the reference point, but perhaps it’s more effective to organise team-mates from their positions than higher up).

Similarly, the pressure is also high on Steve Bould (and Neil Banfield too for that matter) to make a robust impression in his first season as assistant coach and he showed – as early as the eleventh minute against Sunderland- he can make big decisions. Bould noticed that twice, Sunderland had opportunities to score from attacks originating from fast breaks down the channels so after Jack Colback stole ground in the midfield to shoot, he instructed the full-backs to be more aware whenever they get forward. Thereafter, The Black Cats mounted no serious threat and of the 84 teams that played in the Football League and Premier League in the first weekend, they were the only side not to win a corner.

Post Song, the methods of Arsenal may initially seem unclear. But what it does do is force Arsenal is to place even greater trust in their identity. And what bigger test is there of that than the one which they face next; away to Stoke City.

*Note: For all intents and purposes (whatever that means), match reports will now be published for my new column on Arseblog (with thoughts if I care enough about you guys, on here). My latest piece can be accessed here on Arsenal’s shift away from the “three strikers” tactic used last season. Editorials will still feature on this blog. Thanks for reading.

The evolution of Robin van Persie

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Not a week goes without a prelude to Robin van Persie but every time, he seems to justify it. This week, he single-handedly – well almost as he required wonderful goalkeeping from Wojciech Szczesny and some woeful finishing from Liverpool – earned Arsenal a 2-1 win at Anfield. And again he scored a technically perfect goal. There were some who criticised Pepe Reina for being beaten at the near post but such is his expert technique that he killed the ball dead from Alex Song’s lofted pass to volley pass Reina. His first, however, was a bit more banal but van Persie has made a habit of scoring such goals and that’s significant because a couple of seasons, such a transformation didn’t seem possible.

Van Persie has been crucial to Arsenal even as early as 2005 but his involvement was regularly curtailed by injury; he has only played more than forty games in two seasons. But back then, he was playing as a number 10, the role previously assumed by Dennis Bergkamp. He had the same swivel of the hips, the deliciously dinked passes and the ability to score spectacular goals but many question his maturity. Even so, considering that he was liable to miss matches, some would also question whether playing van Persie in such a crucial position was a wise idea. It needn’t matter because Arséne Wenger thought not to consign him to a number on the pitch. He’s a “football player,” said Wenger. “Who you expect to create something special. You do not think they have to score so many goals, they added that to their game.”

Wenger initially deployed van Persie in 2009, in a roaming capacity in a role nowadays referred to as the “false nine.” It worked a treat but no sooner had van Persie got the hang of it, he succumbed to injury. It wasn’t until 2011 when we saw the best of him again but he had refined his game and has since gone on a superb goalscoring run (currently on 43 league goals in 46 games). Indeed, that has been a rarely-talked about part of van Persie’s evolution: each time Wenger has implemented a series of tactical and strategic changes to their play, van Persie has adapted and yet consistently delivered the goals.

Playing as the false nine in 2009, van Persie brought others into play with his movement which, at the time, was crucial because it allowed those strikers vying with him for a central role to remain involved, Nicklas Bendtner and Eduardo could still play alongside him on the right and left of the attack, respectively. Just as significant, Arsenal no longer required such a tactically demanding player to play alongside Cesc Fábregas; the three man midfield that they used ensured that the multitude of creative players they possessed could be used. When he finally put his injury curse behind him midway through the 2010/11 season, his goalscoring came to the fore, necessary because Arsenal were shorn of their most creative player, Fábregas, and he constantly had to bail out the team out with his spontaneity. And this season, van Persie’s explosiveness typifies Arsenal’s new-found back-to-front directness but were it not for his goals, we’d probably be talking about how monumental a failure the tactic is. Either side of him, Gervinho and Theo Walcott haven’t nearly scored enough goals and as the captain, van Persie is right to deflect attention to their creative output but even Wenger would have expected his three-striker system to yield more goals beyond his talismanic forward. (Wenger: “We have players who deliver fantastic numbers of assists – I think Gervinho and Walcott are among the best providers in the world if you look at the number of assists. But I know there are more goals in them and I am sure from midfield we need some goals as well. They will be welcome tomorrow.”)

The above reason also serves as another reason why van Persie is a perfect captain for this club, beyond his stature amongst the players, as van Persie’s leadership is also tactical. The Dutchman works so hard to get back into position when the team defends, acting as the reference point for their defensive structure (or the half press which they tend to use). He alludes to this example by action in an interview for Arsenal.com, stating the somewhat obsessive need to perfect his average of 11.5km covered per game. Which, on it’s own, is an extraordinary statistic but even more so because it comes from a striker; normally, you’d expect a midfielder to work as hard as van Persie does. (Van Persie covers the most distance of any player in the Premier League at 6.148 miles per game).

Talk of anyone being the most “complete striker” might seem a bit exaggerated but in van Persie’s case, it’s wholly justified (backed up by Arrigo Sacchi no less, the legendary coach who advocated a universalistic style made by universalistic players). Van Persie’s movement is superb, dragging defenders all over the pitch. Indeed, Jurgen Klopp, Borussia Dortmund’s manager, says he’s “rarely ever seen a player who plays so deep in midfield and then is such a danger in the box.” The coach, in the 3-1 defeat away to Arsenal, promised to stop the supply to van Persie to stop him from scoring but the nature of his play was an altogether unfamiliar threat. Van Persie constantly peels of his marker, whether playing on the shoulder or picking up possession. And if he does pick up the ball around the box, all manner of things can happen – he essentially made the second against Liverpool possible with his movement followed by his excellent technique – which highlights the joy of Robin van Persie at the moment and long may it continue because he’s deserved it.

Van Persie’s evolution can almost be seen as a journey; he has gone from number 11 from his time as a winger for Feyenoord, to a number 10, to a false 9 before making the final transition to where he is now as a number 9. But naturally of course, Robin van Persie says he’s neither; he’s a 9-and-a-half.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic inspires Milan to the perfect game

Zlatan

If there was a football equivalent of a “perfect game” then AC Milan might have executed it. Unlike baseball though, it’d be qualitative because Milan didn’t overwhelmingly dominate in any of the main statistics – except shots – but their game-plan went  perfectly according to plan to emphatically defeat Arsenal 4-0 in the 1st leg of the Champions League knock-out stage. It doesn’t happen often; FK Crvena zvezda (Red Star) might have claimed to have done that when they beat Liverpool 2-1 in the European Cup in 1973, imploring even the Anfield crown to applaud their winner. Or Ajax in 1966 as they defeated the same club 5-1, forcing Bill Shankly to peculiarly declare that “they were the most defensive team we have ever met” – everything just went right for Ajax. Milan’s 4-0 win over Barcelona in the 1994 final may have been as perfect as it got in the European Cup while you can argue Barcelona themselves do it every week (except very recently), winning by doing EXACTLY what it wants.

There is a feeling, though, that Milan played a perfect game because Arsenal’s inefficiencies make that more likely to happen against them.

For all of Arsenal’s progress this season after a summer of discontent, there are still teething issues throughout the squad. Arsène Wenger admitted before the game that this Arsenal team had more “mental quality” than technical quality in comparison to the 2008 side which conquered at the San Siro, noting that that side were “technically perfect.” However, last night they well and truly suffered on both departments. Arsenal had a game-plan – to play in the opponent’s half (“at the start we will try to get out of our own half and try to get up there and play. Spurs won the game when they were dominated, but that is football today”) and in training the players were given instructions on what they might face and must do against the red-and-black. The reality was much starker as on the pitch, Arsenal didn’t react to scenarios Milan threw at them. Patrick Vieira talked about Arsenal lacking “leadership” on the pitch and he’s right. As Gus Hiddink stresses, players must “coach” team-mates on the pitch and Arsenal don’t do that enough.

Much was made of the pitch beforehand and that may have had some influence on Arsène Wenger eschewing a wide game. He started Tomáš Rosický on the left instead of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, possibly to help cover the returning Kieran Gibbs but mainly to help retain possession better. In that, it wasn’t such a bad move because he was one of Arsenal’s most creative players and by working the ball wide, they might have shuffled around Milan’s supposedly narrow midfield. Milan, though, threw a spanner in the works and set-up much more dynamically than expected.

Massimiliano Allegri played a 4-3-2-1 shape, using the three forward players in a roaming capacity when in possession which overwhelmed Arsenal’s defence because when they attacked, it meant Arsenal’s centre-backs had an extra man to watch. They couldn’t mark man-for-man because they didn’t know who to pick up as Milan committed runners superbly. In midfield, they alleviated any numerical disadvantage, partly because of Arsenal’s shape, but also because they closed of any gaps with a midfield three which was backed up a vociferous three in front. “Our positioning was excellent and it prevented them from creating good openings,” said Allegri.

Arsenal partly played to their downfall as their shape was closer to  a 4-4-1-1 and especially when they pressed, only Aaron Ramsey and Robin van Persie did meaning it was very easy to bypass the men closing down and get into midfield. And when Milan did attack, they used all areas of the pitch, stretching it with a roaming front three and pushing the full-backs forward. Arsenal’s inefficiencies were exposed.

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But Arsenal, famed for their exuberance in attack were improbably flat and suffered from a “poverty of ideas”; they could not get any telling support to Robin van Persie. At half-time, Wenger whipped off Walcott – not necessarily for his individual performance, because were bad all-round but because he characterised the team’s lack of ingenuity. Arsenal were able to work it into wide areas but most often just crossed the ball into the box. Wenger resorted, in the second-half, to looking to play through the two players that Arsenal have that can make something happen – van Persie and Thierry Henry – and now one of those is now gone. The narrow shape created one great chance which was saved brilliantly by Cristian Abbiati but the lack of technical ability in the side is galling. It’s just not Arsenal and Wenger knows it; his words before the game remained upbeat but were filled with underdog rhetoric. But, this is not a club in decline although the strategic direction since the move to the Emirates has hampered their competitiveness. The blow was delivered by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the man who got away from them because Arsenal insisted a trial and The Gunners were unable to handle him as he created SIX chances. He was at the heart of all the Rossoneri’s attacking play. Tuttosport wrote this morning, that it had been a “magical night”. It was the perfect night for Milan.

Mark van Bommel at the heart of a new, harder Milan

Van-Bommel

They are two markedly different periods in AC Milan’s history but owner Silvio Berlusconi is having to show the same level of faith he did to legendary coach, Arrigo Sacchi, as he is to incumbent manager, Massimiliano Allegri. Berlusconi took over the club in 1986 and after a  nervy start, which drew heavy criticism from star striker, Marco van Basten, he kept his trust in Sacchi. That show of confidence was rewarded as it saw Milan experience their most successful spell in their hostory, winning three European Cups in ten years and five league titles. “It was to become a magnificent Milan team, probably unrepeatable, but I was grateful to Silvio Berlusconi,” said Sacchi. “Because he always placed trust in me, especially at the beginning when the losses first came.  The board always supported me. Always. The board trusted me and said follow your way, it is the right way.”

And while Massimo Allegri has begun in winning fashion – securing the championship in his debut season – the exuberant spending that once characterised Serie A club owners is no more and that means a different type of trust has to be placed on Allegri. And it is a different type of team too.  “You can’t always dine on lobster and caviar,” said Allegri dismissively when asked about the way his Milan side are playing. “Every now and again you have to be satisfied with a ham sandwich.” His team is a side in transition – not necessarily in terms of age which it seems Milan have forever been stuck in anyway (as Arsenal are in youth); even Sacchi himself has recently belittled the squad’s age – but in terms of philosophy where graft has replaced craft. Berlusconi is willing to accept it due to the financial constraints hampering their attempts to bring in a “fantasia” or a “regista” but also because some argue it’s a step towards the modern era. And it’s because of that ideological shift that Milan stand the greatest chance of overcoming their “English taboo” in the Champions League.

A new Milan emerges

In the library of Coverciano, the Italian Football Federation’s legendary technical centre, sits Carlo Ancelotti’s thesis, ‘Il Futuro del Calcio: Piu Dinamicita’ – ‘The Future of Football: More Dynamism’ and though he preferred to err on romanticism when in charge of Milan, it seems Allegri’s team at the closest end of that extreme.

Functionality pervades Allegri’s Milan. Michael Cox of ZonalMarking.net writes of how boring their midfield has become, which is “now based around physical attributes” and indeed, the statistics show that their midfield four is creating less on average, at only 0.85 key passes a game (that means in some matches, they even fail to create any chances). To be fair on Milan, though, they have missed their main creative outlet in midfield, Alberto Aquilani while fantastically intelligent as he may be, Clarence Seerdorf’s heavy legs deem him a liability in the defensive phase. They’ve added energy to their game which was once their kryptonite (they were so impressed by Mathieu Flamini’s astronomical fitness levels in one game, that they signed him a year later) and now they depend highly on individual quality upfront rather than intelligent play from midfield to create chances.

In a sense, Mark van Bommel personifies the new Milan. He makes just as many passes as the celestial Andrea Pirlo did in the red-an-black but is seen as an antithesis of what their midfield was built around before. Pirlo was the conductor; the instigator of attacks while van Bommel is the retardant; he stops the opponents’ attacks. His role, however, cannot be understated because it’s just as important. In fact, he might as well be Milan because take him out and they’re a severely less efficient team. In that regards, van Bommel is just like Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, giving security to a system which was once deemed inefficient.

Milan, who play a 4-3-1-2 formation, have long been regarded as being weak on the flanks, both from a defensive capacity as well as an attacking one. The full-backs are expected to provide the width but as soon as they lose it, they’re just as quickly expected to filter back. Perhaps, it’s a tactic that works well in Serie A where matches are less intense because in the league, the midfield three have done well to get back into position and double up in wide areas but with the pace of Arsenal, Milan might be exposed. Indeed, this is where Mark van Bommel has been superb since his move in January last season – a move which Allegri admits was a gamble, the opposite of Arteta – because he marshals his troops so expertly. “As for Van Bommel, what to say,” said Allegri. “This is a very intelligent player who has already figured out Italian football and gives a sense of security needed in defensive line.”

Against Napoli, in the 0-0 draw a fortnight ago, van Bommel was the coach on the pitch, shouting and ordering his team-mates to position like a general and covered any gaps that emerged. Indeed, theirin may lie a weakness because there’s often an overwhelming reliance on him to paper over the cracks tactically. This can be highlighted by a moment in the Napoli game where, after reading an unsuccessful through-pass, he was ushered into the full-back position and when pressed, rather than get it safe, he played a dangerous ball across his own box which fortunately for his side, went unharmed. Simply, he’s doing too much. And with a booking away from suspension, he’s certainly walking a thin line.

Van Bommel’s success is that he alleviates any weakness that Milan has, especially on the flanks, and shifts the tactical battle in the middle of the pitch – where Milan are strongest. They might draw courage from the way Benfica compressed play towards the middle of the pitch against Arsenal in pre-season in a similar diamond formation although when they did score, it came from expected fashion; a quick attack down the flank saw Kieran Gibbs free Robin van Persie. The fear is that it might happen again. Milan will need Mark van Bommel to be his typical self for that not to happen and the referee to talk groceries with the Dutch midfielder

Wing-wizards prove the difference for Arsenal against Blackburn Rovers

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal-v-Blackbrun

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

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

Alex Song passes

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