Euro 2012: Will Robin van Persie get the support he craves?

If this is the Golden Era of the prolific front men, then you might want to spare a thought for their back-ups. Because it’s they that have to suffer the most, having to sit and watch as each goal from the main striker further condemns to a bit-part role. Indeed, with the prevalence of the lone striker system in the modern game, it means only one can start. For Manchester United fans, that meant having to sit through last season perplexed as to why Dimitar Berbatov rarely figured while even the relatively prolific Javier Hernandez (10 goals in 21 starts) had to play second fiddle to Danny Welbeck because he created space better for the chief goal-getter, Wayne Rooney. At other clubs around Europe, it was a similar scenario: Lionel Messi’s exploits meant Barcelona went most of the season without an orthodox striker; Lucas Barrios only started three games at Borussia Dortmund despite top scoring the season before while Arsenal fans have seldom seen Marouane Chamakh and Park Chu-Young warm up, let alone enter the play. And in the forthcoming European Championships, both France and Germany have decided to pack their sides with creative midfielders and enter the tournament with only two strikers.

It’s not such an obvious choice up front for Netherlands, however, as they can call on the third and fourth top-scorers in Europe respectively, Robin van Persie (30 goals) and Klass-Jan Huntelaar (29 goals). Indeed, the decision to which of the strikers has been the main talking point in the lead up to Euro 2012. Huntelaar impressed in qualifying with 12 goals but the signs are van Persie will get the nod despite never quite convincing in the orange – it’s his fourth major tournament as a starter. But if van Persie is assured of a place in the line-up come the opener against Germany, it’s because the normally cautious Bert van Marwijk has decided give the Arsenal striker the support – on the pitch – that he so desperately craves.

The Holland manager, in van Persie’s words, has said that he “will go for a striker who works well with the midfield,” but stopping short of virtually confirming that he will start, van Persie added: “But that can also be Klaas.” And the slight tactically change – mainly decided upon by the unique skills of the personnel at his disposal rather than any ideological shift – suits van Persie more. “Robin is an all-round attacker, but he showed he is also a killer in the box,” said van Marwijk. “Klaas-Jan is a goal-getter and is always getting better with the squad.”

The new approach was indicated in the 6-0 thrashing of Northern Ireland where Robin van Persie created and scored two goals and in particular, linking superbly with Ibrahim Afellay. Indeed, unlike Rafael van der Vaart or Wesley Sneijder beforehand perhaps, convincing Afellay to use his skill on the left is probably the final piece of van Marwijk’s puzzle. It allows Afellay to cut in his stronger foot and create but most importantly, to link up with the forward. Because with van Marwijk’s 4-2-3-1 system, there’s a distinct 6-4 split between defence and attack and thus, a lot relies on the front four to produce. As such, having an extra creator in the line-up instead of the hard-working Dirk Kuyt allows van Marwijk to go with two holding midfielders. “At the World Cup, we played large parts of games in our opponents’ half,” said the manager. “That means you need to be very patient, because if you force yourself too much – and we know the level of football at the Euros – then you know you will face dangerous counterattacks, and we don’t want that.”

The set up should fuel Robin van Persie’s instincts; spontaneity is his greatest asset, yet those impulses haven’t been rewarded in the international stage. He complains about the lack of service he received in South Africa 2010, indirectly criticising the role of Wesley Sneijder. “However hard I find it to accept, I wasn’t on top of my game,” he told Henk Spaan in FT Magazine. “In the whole World Cup, I was only put [through] in front of the keeper four or five times. Cesc [Fabregas] did it four or five times a match.” The two have made up since then and the signs were good when Sneijder put through van Persie in the 2-1 warm-up defeat to Bulgaria. Indeed, Van Persie tells Spaan of the unique relationship between the team’s playmaker and the striker that that they have to “form a two-in-one unit” and it’s notable that for Arsenal last season, van Persie’s goalscoring really accelerated when Aaron Ramsey was push closer to him in attack. And later on in the season, his understanding with Tomas Rosicky (and the impact of Yossi Benayoun) seemed to be the only thing pushing Arsenal over the line.

Many feel that this might be Robin van Persie’s zenith moment – and not just Arsenal fans who anxiously wait with the belief that the tournament holds the key to his future. Ajax analyst and friend of Johan Cruyff, Tonnie Bruins Slot, feels van Persie can emulate the legendary striker with his interpretation of the no.9 role. “Johan always started as the team’s forward, and then dropped a bit deeper to direct play, and create space for wingers like Rob Rensenbrink and John Rep, and midfielders such as Wim van Hanegem and Johan Neeskens,” Tonnie Bruins Slot told De Telegraaf. “This indirectly led to the ‘Totaalvoetbal’ Oranje played at the 1974 World Cup. Van Persie can play a similar role this summer, and it looks like [national team coach] Bert van Marwijk intends to use him like that.”

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.”

Six points on Queens Park Rangers 2-1 Arsenal

1. Arsenal’s away blues continue

Arsenal’s indifferent away form continued with a 2-1 defeat to Queens Park Rangers. Their opponents might be embroiled in a relegation battle but there was an air of uncertainty whether Arsenal could extend their lead over Tottenham Hotspur with a victory. That’s because their record away has been patchy until recently – it became 7 wins, (2 draws) and 7 losses after this defeat – but while previous games against Sunderland, Liverpool, Everton have yielded wins, Arsenal have rode their luck somewhat.

That’s probably a harsh assessment because they were tough fixtures and rather, the fact that Arsenal came out with three wins should highlight their growing mental strength. However, there is a sense of anxiety in Arsenal’s football whenever they play away from home and while Arsène Wenger maintains there is no difference to their approach wherever they play, there’s no doubt that their opponents show more ambition at their home ground. Regardless, Wenger’s selection hinted that he considered QPR might play more aggressively therefore he selected Aaron Ramsey on the left to try and gain some form of control. We’ll debate whether that was the right decision later but certainly there was sense in the move; Arsenal have struggled when opponents press – and they do so more confidently at home – thus Wenger wanted to strengthen his side’s ability to keep the ball. His reason, however, was less revealing; “the thinking is that he played there because I decided for him to play there.”

But Arsenal failed to find a way through as QPR remained compact in the middle and pressed particularly hard whenever the ball reached the wide areas. Arsenal were unable to complete the combinations they’ve been doing recently down the flanks and their movement was uncharacteristically static. It’s in little moments, such as the goal, in which Arsenal were able to find a semblance of fluency, otherwise QPR deserve full credit for their gameplan. And they were just as alert to take advantage whenever they got forward, particularly exposing Arsenal with early balls down the channels. For their second goal and their winner, the ball was played quickly from the halfway line just as Arsenal looked to push up. As a result, a large gap was created in the midfield which the spare midfielder, Samba Diakité, took advantage of. The problem was Arsenal were unable to compress space when pressing; at home they can push teams back with their possession as normally, opponents are more cautious. Here, QPR showed zeal and while Arsenal accrued 69% possession – eminently more than their average of 57% away – QPR defended deep and left their forwards up the pitch, creating a large gap in the centre. They made full use of it, as Wenger indicated afterwards saying: “It is the first time this season, we were too open when we had the ball.”

2. Ramsey selection

The decision to start Aaron Ramsey on the left against Everton raised a few eyebrows but that was emphatically swatted away by the start Arsenal made. However, at QPR, that moment never came. Just as Thomas Vermaelen was at fault for the two goals, Ramsey has been scapegoated  – or rather the selection of him out wide, as symptomatic of Arsenal’s poor performance. The rationale was not incorrect although by deploying a player outside of his favoured position it always carries with it, a higher degree of uncertainty.

Ramsey tended to drift inside and that clogged up the centre. But that in itself shouldn’t be a problem because put simply, Arsenal’s movement was below par. Indeed, the selection of Ramsey on the left as an auxiliary wide midfielder was meant to encourage greater fluidity and in particular, the rotation between him and his direct competitor in the centre, Tomas Rosicky. That may seem like an unnecessarily complication but possession sides are built on interchangeability and by drifting infield, it opens up space for another midfielder to take up his position. It should be the basics of football and in Spain, young players are trained this way as they are “taught to see the pitch as a field of eight boxes, all of which must be occupied.” Indeed, Cesc Fábregas hints at this “tactical anarchy” when he says “at Arsenal, I could move wherever I felt I could make the best contribution. Here [Barcelona], it’s completely different. Everyone has their own place and it’s important you stick to your position.” And certainly, this season, we’ve seen him frequently get into positions detriment to his team – at times, getting in the way of his team-mates – a sight all too familiar at Loftus Road whenever Ramsey drifted inside. Fans shouldn’t direct their anger at just him though; Rosicky should have looked to take up his position on the left.

– Some argue the decision to start Aaron Ramsey on the left disrupted a winning formula. That’s not entirely true as although Arsenal fielded a more attacking line-up against Aston Villa, away from The Emirates, Wenger has often tried to incorporate another midfielder to retain a level of control. Indeed, on further inspection, it’s been the left-side which has been rotated in this run of wins with Yossi Benayoun initially starting there before Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain was used against Newcastle. Ramsey was given his chance in the next game and was kept after a good team performance. Wenger would have wanted to recreate the first 30 minutes of that game where Arsenal completely outplayed Everton but perhaps it was wrong to draw too many conclusions from that win. Because when Everton did press Arsenal, they were unable to find any rhythm and surely enough, they fell into the same trap against QPR. Nevertheless, the way Arsenal did score was how Wenger would probably have envisaged – Ramsey coming inside, drawing attention away from the right where Walcott made a run, allowing Rosicky and van Persie to combine before freeing the winger. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen enough as Arsenal’s overall movement was very poor. Creativity suffered and, as shown by the graphic below, QPR funnelled their attacks and forced them to try and dribble their way – unsuccessfully – through the centre.

3. Vermaelen’s impetuousness proves costly

The biggest test of Thomas Vermaelen’s character, after he allowed Adel Taarabt to get past him for the opener, was whether he would continue playing in the same manner. And sure enough, the next similar pass that was played to a QPR forward, he tried to nip in front and steal possession. Vermaelen’s game – as indeed Arsenal is – is built on his impetuousness, looking to regain possession quickly and compress the space in front. But it carries with it, it’s inherent risks and the downside of it was displayed twice for QPR’s goals as first, Vermaelen was turned by Taarabt before he slipped in the lead up to the second, after initially winning the ball.

Both Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny contribute heavily to Arsenal’s style due to their stealth-like ability to take possession of their opponents toes but while the latter has added calmness to his game, lengthy periods away from centre-back haven’t seen yet Vermaelen adjust. It’s not the first time he has made such errors that have led directly to goals and Vermaelen will have to prove that his reputation thus far, hasn’t been biased towards his character. Arsenal have long bemoaned costly individual errors and Vermaelen’s untimely slip means Arsenal have now conceded the most goals – 11 – from errors leading directly to goals than any other team.

Both Vermaelen and Koscielny made five interceptions but Vermaelen’s sum up his zealousness as he won his high up the pitch.

4. Alex Song crucial

Alex Song’s importance was displayed once again as he attempted 109 passes in total but there is a feeling that he might be doing too much. Because, as well as acting as the shield in front, making 5/7 tackles, he’s often tasked with providing the through-balls for the forwards. It’s all part of Arsenal’s rotation in the centre but perhaps a degree of specialisation might allow them to be more efficient. At the moment, both Arteta and Song play a dual role but if one of them held, then Diakite’s goal might have been avoided. The pair have been superb this season but there are inefficiencies in the system, those of which have been particularly exposed away from home.

5. Bobby Zamora outshines van Persie

If there’s one criticism of Robin van Persie’s game, it’s that his hold-up play leaves a lot to be desired. He lost the ball 8 times on Saturday through bad control or being dispossessed and generally failed to get into the game. He did have Arsenal’s best chance beyond the goal, threaded through by Song, displaying his superb movement but was well stopped by Paddy Kenny. By contrast, Bobby Zamora received the ball twice as much as QPR tried to play it to him early and he caused Arsenal plenty of trouble with his strength. Indeed, he tends to drift to his right and in the games he played for Fulham against Arsenal as well, he has got the better of Vermaelen.

6. Kieran Gibbs is learning but he needs help

A common theme of QPR’s play was getting the ball down the channels, especially when Arsenal were disorganised. Kieran Gibbs was especially targeted and the winner came from his side. As shown by the take-ons below, QPR were not put under the same pressure down the left as they were on the right where Arsenal tend to slant. As a result, Gibbs wasn’t afforded the same protection and as thus, made to look inexperienced. He’s going to be a superb full-back in the future but at the moment, he’s not getting the help he requires.

Arsenal 3-0 Aston Villa: Defenders lead the way forward

This post first appeared on Arsenal Insider

If, as the orange and black banner draped against the North Stand is correct, and Robin van Persie does score “when he wants”, it was evidently his day off as he left it to the others to get the goals. On the face of it, perhaps it was a good thing as it showed Arsenal are not so reliant on Robin van Persie and Arsène Wenger indicated as much, although he would have wanted van Persie to continue his goalscoring form and thus kept him on until the end. But when Kieran Gibbs opened the scoring, the most surprising thing wasn’t the fact that he had scored but that it was Arsenal 17th different goalscorer in the Premier League – more than any other team. What reliance on van Persie?

Of course, that would be missing the point as Arsenal have hugely been dependent on their captain and as Gibbs scored, it merely confirmed what Arsenal had been missing for much of the season – a coherent squad and chiefly the presence of full-backs. Because, not having recognised full-backs on the pitch has affected Arsenal tactically and therefore forced them to play in a different way. (In one sense, perhaps Wenger is culpable as he could have altered his team’s shape). At the beginning of the season, having lost both Samir Nasri and Cesc Fábregas and then Jack Wilshere through injury, Arsenal switched emphasis towards the flanks. When the full-backs quickly succumbed to injury, Arsenal were not able to produce the same combinations that we are regularly seeing now between Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott and Gibbs and Gervinho as they showed for the first goal, thus they tried to force they through the centre. It’s no coincidence, then, Arsenal’s fluency suffered in that period. Now, as Wenger says, there is “a more variation in our build-up play and therefore we are more dangerous as well.” And when Theo Walcott scored the second to essentially confirm the win when The Gunners completely dominated, each part of Arsenal’s game finally fell into place. Because, that type of goal is how Wenger has always wanted to score and quietly, he will be disappointed that it hasn’t more often. Not the pass from Alex Song, which he has been doing all season, but the penetrative ball behind the full-back, which Arsenal made a trademark of last season, and which seemed a perfect fir for the three-striker system.

Speaking of plans, Wenger also feels the team has come out of their shell in recent weeks and that’s because they are clearer of their game. Indeed, he indicates the early season form and tactics they used may have been dictated by the unfortunate circumstances they were in and thus had to play more cautiously (think about how their pressing had changed and the run of eight games unbeaten from October to mid-December where they almost exclusively dealt in low scores). ”Since then [defeats to Fulham/Swansea],” said Wenger, “we have more options and a bit better plan. That has allowed the team to feel more confident.”

Their new-found exuberance can be typified by the way in which Kieran Gibbs was allowed to get forward against Aston Villa and previously against Everton although when he did, Arsenal also left themselves open. Luckily for Arsenal, Alex Song has been on standby as cover in recent games and has had to drop back into his spaces more frequently. It’s an area Arsenal can still improve on as pushing two full-backs forward can cause undue strain on the back, not to mention when your centre-back also decides to join in the attack, and they looked slightly vulnerable on the break.

Nevertheless, defenders are crucial in developing a fluent attacking game and Arsenal often seek to take advantage, as they look to free them in the build up depending on who they are playing (against a 4-5-1, centre-backs become key while versus a two-man attack, the full-backs are usually the ones who receive it from the back first. Aston Villa made it easy because they dropped deep and allowed Arsenal time to play it out). “When we did not win games [earlier in the season], I did not feel we played as badly as people said. We have gained a lot of confidence in our play out from the back and that makes a massive difference,” said Wenger. “The defenders who play out from the back give us a security now and that allows the team to be much more confident.”

The fate of Arsenal’s season has usually suffered from the absence of quality defenders; this season, their presence has reignited them.

Six points on Arsenal 2-1 Newcastle United

1. We’re witnessing the real Arsenal now

Some of the crowd left early but for the rest who stayed, there was a sense of expectedness about Arsenal’s last-minute winner. It came in the fifth minute of injury time as Thomas Vermaelen bundled in a cross from Theo Walcott; never mind that it came from the right-hand side or that Vermaelen constantly got forward, this was another example of Arsenal’s mental strength. With the victory, Arsenal have become the first Premier League side to win four consecutive matches having fallen behind initially. Perhaps, it’s not the most desired recognition because it means Arsenal have teething issues within but for a club which hasn’t consistently faltered in the final stages in the last few season, this shows a quality which Arsenal have, in the past, lacked.

But back to the deficiencies and it seems The Gunners can’t seem to find a balance between their typical “gung-ho” style and playing a little bit cautiousness from the start. Indeed, it must be noted that when they went unbeaten in eight games from October to mid-December, Arsenal typically won by low scores, usually delivered by Robin van Persie. Against Newcastle United, van Persie wasn’t required to be at his best (although his movement continues to be superb) and it was the same against Milan but Arsenal still produced a performance of great character and substance. Perhaps Arsenal are finally coming to their own with only 3rd place to concentrate on. Because now they can take the risks that their play wants as they know they have more recovery time if they expend all their energy. And certainly, it showed as Arsenal pressed more proactively against Newcastle than they generally have this season, usually winning the ball higher up the pitch.

In the match programme, Arsène Wenger said that Arsenal “can play at a pace that, arguably, nobody (else) can sustain” and as we’ve seen this season, that involves taking full advantage of the side’s speed. In a sense, the game reasserted the new way Arsenal  look to break down sides now, shorn of a central creative figure like Jack Wilshere of Cesc Fábregas, as they’re always looking for the quick release behind otherwise, everything goes down the flanks. Theo Walcott was superb, dovetailing with Bacary Sagna while van Persie’s movement was always sought, either from a ball over the top or through by Alex Song or a cross from out wide. But the reason why Arsenal have found such a holistic style this late in the season, might probably fall down to the fact that the team is now settling into habitual patterns and the cautiousness that we saw early season, having stemmed from a certain unfamiliarity with each other. Because, as much as the signings might have been reactionary, it takes a lot more time and integration to alter mindsets and get a team to properly know each other and finally, Arsenal look in tune.

2. Arsenal profit from a right-side bias

Tactically, much of Arsenal’s success came from the flanks, especially on the right-hand side. Arsenal gave a glimpse of that tactic early on, by aiming goal-kicks at Bacary Sagna and twice he freed Theo Walcott behind. The focus on that side – as it has been for much of the season – was paying off as Jonas Gutierrez was often forced all the way back and even as the defensive winger, he was not getting any joy out of it. Theo Walcott dovetailed with Sagna superbly as they constantly took on their man and aimed in crosses – most encouragingly, low ones too. On the other side, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, couldn’t force himself into the game as Tomáš Rosický – the midfielder who tends to drift left – was similarly dragged to the right. Indeed, it was more discernible on Monday night that Arsenal favour the right side because of the pace of their attacks but this season, the majority of play has tended to operate towards that side. (The season  average is at 37% for attacks origination from the right, and 30% from the left).

3. Van Persie scores when he wants

Arsenal only needed a minute to cancel out Newcastle’s goal with Robin van Persie putting the finishing touches to a equally swift move. Actually, it required three touches to be precise and each one was as devastating as it was expert; his first was to kill off Theo Walcott’s fizzing cross and open up his body, his second to take it away from the defender and the third, a powerful shot into the corner. The nature of Arsenal’s winner overshadowed the quality of the first and again van Persie showed why he is the best striker in the world at the moment. Indeed, his evolution is slightly going against convention in the fact that he’s playing more conventionally because the two best players in the world, Ronaldo and Messi, have scored all their goals unorthodox roles. It must be admired then, how van Persie has refined his game to resist his natural urges to continually drop deep and now all his instincts have gone towards getting onto the final ball. His movement was superb – wizardy almost – as he continuously spun off his marker to find space. Michael Williamson will attest to that when he was beaten for the first.

4. Newcastle’s approach

Considering that Newcastle United won so many aerial duels (19/28 although Demba Ba never won it in the box and while when they did, it was through a predetermined set-piece aimed at Williamson), it poses the question why they didn’t play two forwards. Of course, that would mean ceding a centre-midfield which they probably wouldn’t have won any way but it would have always gave them an outlet to get away from the battle in the centre. Cheik Tiote did a good job moving the ball and closing Arsenal down but whenever  he did get it forward, attacks often broke down straight away. And that’s because Arsenal squeezed the play well and won the ball back quickly. However, by choosing to go one forward and Gabriel Obertan operating off Ba, they played into Arsenal’s hand as Laurent Koscielny in particular, got to the ball first  constantly while, as we’re going to find out, it meant Vermaelen could get forward often without being a danger to his team (although the winner came when Newcastle switched to a 4-4-2).

5. Alex Song and Mikel Arteta switch roles

As Arsenal looked to press higher, Alex Song was used mainly in a box-to-box role. The truth is, that has been almost his default role this season as he has delivered some telling assists while Mikel Arteta dropped back naturally to pick up possession. But here, Song clearly started off with the brief to try and win the ball back higher up. Arteta on the other hand, kept the ball moving from deep, completing a weighty 52 passes in the first half. In the second half, Song dropped back while Arteta probed. But the Spaniard rarely uses his passing to penetrate and for a while, it looked like his technical ability would be better suited in a more advanced role. As it was, Song broke from his shackles and gave the drive for the move that eventually led to the winner.

6. Thomas Vermaelen leads the way forward

Barcelona’s use of midfielders in the backline points to a wider trend – that of a move to a purer game. Defenders are now required to have an almost faultless technical ability as they tend to have most of the ball and thus start attacks. With Vermaelen though, the centre-back offers more than playmaking because he’s also a goal-threat. So often in the game, he pushed up looking for that space to run into while Song dropped back. And often he was forced to abort his run as Newcastle blocked off the space. But he broke forward in the last minute – strode rather – while the rest ran full-bloodedly into the box. His movement is often superb and it’s no surprise that he found the ball at the back post unmarked – he already has two to his name from such runs and assisted Arteta against Wigan. Indeed, with Arsenal’s game seeking to give as much space to the centre-backs in the build up and the fact that they are usually the “spare” man, it can be such a dangerous weapon. Of course, it carries it’s inherent weaknesses but when you can get forward unmarked – and let’s face it, the striker will rarely track the centre-back – it can be a match-winner. Which it turned out to be.

The evolution of Robin van Persie

van persie liverpool

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.

Yossi Benayoun selection epitomises Arsenal’s philosophy in derby win

arsenal-defeat-spurs-woo-hoo

At 34 minutes, it seemed like the balance of power had indubitably shifted towards the white of North London. 34 minutes later, it had appeared as if it had never moved. Tottenham Hotspur had taken a two goal lead and confirmed that the difference between the swashbuckle of the two sides was the end product. However Arsenal, often too ready to accept their role as beautiful martyrs and they had full right to be aggrieved when they fell behind further to a dubious penalty won by Garethe Bale, did not wallow in their adversity and responded emphatically. Everything went right for them with Arsène Wenger claiming it was a “perfect performance”.

This was how Arsenal always wanted to win. Perhaps it was not part of the plan to fall two goals behind to Tottenham Hotspur but that seems to get the best out of them – they drew inspiration from the 3-2 win against Aston Villa for their latest comeback. But they played with a refreshing desire and togetherness, set on the backdrop of Robin van Persie’s heartfelt promise to fans to expect better in Sunday’s The Sun, that should set the benchmark for a strong end to the season. They’ve felt this before, though, when they defeated Barcelona 2-1 at home but as Paolo Bandini said on Football Weekly, it was probably The Emirates’ “signature moment” as Arsenal delivered a strong performance for lengthy periods. “Today we gave a performance that on the spirit side, the technical side, the drive of the whole team, on the style of the game we want to play everything was perfect despite a very bad start,” said Arsène Wenger. “I felt in the first five minutes Tottenham started well, after that it was all us for 85 minutes.”

In some respects, there was nothing new about Arsenal’s performance. In fact, you might even described it as their “gung-ho” style working perfectly because while it, at times, left them exposed at the back, such as the build up for Spurs’ opener, it was the right mix of intensity and technical level. If they want to concede less goals, they’d probably have to demand an even greater share of the possession and/or compress the space quicker when they lose it. Arsenal’s rapid and intense brand of football is resource-heavy and creates undue strain at the back. But as the rest of the game foretold: if Arsenal attack like this, it is their defence. In that sense, it was strange to see Tottenham cut off so much of their attacking threat in the second-half as while they probably did the right thing, congesting the middle of the pitch by moving to a 4-5-1/4-3-2-1 with Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart roaming, it narrowed the space for their key player – Bale, who was superb in the first-half – to cause damage. (And it was even more strange to see him shunted to the right for the majority of the second-half; it was probably a case of Harry Redknapp looking to get more of their best player by giving him freedom but he sacrificed the rest of the team to try and squeeze more out of one).

Arsenal were excellent – pulsating at times. Robin van Persie led by example and he confirmed his status as the most hard-working player in the league with another tireless shift (he runs on average 6.148 miles a game). He dragged Arsenal to their feet when on another day it might have dropped. Certainly, there was a noticeable shift in Arsenal’s mentality while Alex Song could be seen geeing his team up when they fell behind on four minutes. The midfield swirled and snarled at Tottenham’s attackers to try and win the ball back and then kept the ball brilliantly to sustain the pressure. And while Mikel Arteta probed and prompted, Tomáš Rosický gave a direction to Arsenal’s attacks and his goal to put Arsenal in the lead, epitomised their philosophy. As Theo Walcott played the ball into the box following a furious counter-attack, The Gunners had four men waiting to receive the pass.

Talk of “philosophy” implicitly imbues it with a kind of moral superiority that tends to irritate but this performance gave it back to Arsenal when it had seemed as if it had deserted them this season. The selection of Yossi Benayoun epitomised that, signalling Arsenal’s intention and their ideologue for the match. He wasn’t starting by default just because Andrey Arshavin had left. No, this is a player who has finally got his chance – his deserved chance. In his short period at Arsenal, Benayoun has shown a willingness for the fight and a refreshing patience to wait for his opportunity. He scored a header in the last minutes against Aston Villa and the reaction of his team-mates said it all; they were wishing it on him to score. Add to that he was thrown in in not too favourable conditions away to Borussia Dortmund (and Swansea City), in the unfamiliar position of central midfield and was tasked with taking a creative mantle in the Carling Cup. It’s just a shame in the past few seasons, his talent has never been rewarded with starting spots. At Liverpool, he had an in-out relationship with Rafael Benitez while Andre Villas-Boas wasn’t willing to take the punt with him, in either the wide striker roles or in the centre in his 4-3-3. It’s a similar scenario at Arsenal where, if he had come in another season where the ideological slant hadn’t shifted slightly away from the intricate towards the direct, then he surely would have played more often.

Perhaps at first glance, Benayoun’s selection doesn’t seem as significant as it is being made out in this article. But Arsenal have struggled for fluency this season, with Arsène Wenger admitting that the team is a “little bit less good than last year with possession of the ball.” And he has admitted that the three-striker system was almost an experiment; one which has surely now ended or at least, shown it’s limitations against the top sides. “When we played for a long period with Gervinho, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott we were dangerous, basically, always through our wings, but a little less in control possession wise,” he said. “It was not a conscious thing but it’s just we found Gervinho, who did well, and we tried to find a system that can accommodate Walcott and Gervinho.”

With Arsenal suffering in past derbies from a lack of control, Wenger got it correct tactically by playing the Israeli midfielder. With Benayoun frequently involved in the build up, Arsenal refound their control and swagger. No longer did Robin van Persie remain exclusive to a poacher’s role; he roamed around the pitch, dropped off his marker and was allowed to spontaneous again. His goal to equaliser was the perfect expression of his new-found freedom as he curled the ball into the corner from the edge of the box. And Wenger knew, with Benayoun’s presence as a half-winger on the other side, it would eventually see Theo Walcott come good. Indeed, Arsenal’s set up changed slightly in the second-half with Benayoun tucking in and Alex Song dropping deeper thus allowing Walcott to push up; it’s something they have experimented during Thierry Henry’s brief spell at the club. But with Spurs playing more narrow, it allowed Theo Walcott to get behind constantly and Arsenal’s formation flitted in and out of their 4-3-3 to a slanted 4-4-2. Walcott profited and punished in a match where, not only did Arsenal wrestle back the balance of power back to red and white of North London, but they also rediscovered their identity.

Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham Hotspur: Saha 4, Adebayor (pen) 34, Sagna 40, van Persie 43, Rosicky 51, Walcott 65, Walcott 68.

Some Chalkboards….

1. Arsenal squeeze the space

If Arsenal played with a spirit and desire to get the ball back quickly, it can be showen by the graphic for their interceptions. The ball was rarely won in their defensive third but in the middle third of the pitch. Arsenal began with a fervour and while the lack of interceptions in defence might show how well Tottenham stretched play in the early periods – Arsenal 11 of those interceptions in the first-half alone – it also showed Arsenal’s determination to compress space and play up the pitch. Perhaps Arsenal were a bit nervous at the start abecause once they gained their composure, they were imperious and could sit back and soak Tottenham’s meek pressure. (As ever, click to enlarge).

2. Bacary Sagna v Kieran Gibbs

The return of two natural full-backs saw the return of Arsenal’s right-side bias with 42% of attacks stemming from that side (the average has been 36% down the right and 31% down the left). This means the two full-backs play slightly differently. Bacary Sagna plays a supporting role, always looking to make himself available in possession while Kieran Gibbs is generally more reserved; his forays forward are often more selective (he was involved in the build up for the first, coming forward late).

3. Theo Walcott makes his presence felt in 2nd-half

Wenger admitted he was thinking about taking Theo Walcott off at half-time but decided against it; the momentum was with Arsenal and that increased the likelihood, especially as Spurs might have to push forward now, to release him. It happened – three times in fact – all in the second-half and of course, he got the two goals (and had a 100% pass accuracy too).

And while Tottenham nullified Walcott in the first-half as shown by the tackles on the right, the change of shape in both sides meant that it happened less in the second. Theo Walcott got behind easily as the Spurs formation narrowed.

4. Thomas Vermaelen’s no-nonsense approach

Thomas Vermaelen had a difficult opening period. He was constantly sucked out of position as his impetuousness can often leave him exposed. Too often, he tried to attack the ball too early and Spurs got away on a couple of occasions (although Laurent Koscielny was also guilty of that for the first goal). Vermaelen has played much of his recent games at left-back so over-zealous approach will need time to curb. Nevertheless, he showed that he has the all-round ability to replace Per Mertesacker – who was beginning to come into his own before his injury  – as he completed the most clearances for Arsenal – ground and aerial (3/5 headed clearances and 4/4 aerial duels won).

5. Alex Song pivotal

It’s argued Alex Song’s forward runs can sometimes be detrimental to the team balance but that’s untrue because it’s usually selective when he gets up the pitch. This can be shown by the assist he made for Arsenal’s fifth but in the second-half, he almost completely reigned his attacking instincts and just sat in front of the back four – often very deep – to allow the other midfielders to play. He was probably the most underrated of the six attacking players yesterday but just as pivotal.