The Mailbag: The King returns, Wenger’s tactical acumen and Arsenal’s pressing issue.

Some people say this feature only serves to massage my oversized ego but I say it allows me to talk about Arsenal’s most current issues in one post. We’re hoping this can be a regular feature so please feel free to debate below and I’ll likely join in below the line too. Thanks!

Q: Where will Thierry Henry play (off the bench)? And what will be his likely impact? Will he simply replace Gervinho in his now famous left to centre role, or is there something else in stall for Thierry? @Sleepy_Nik

A: Firstly, we must start with a caveat; we musn’t expect too much from Thierry Henry. Moreover, how on earth can anyone displace Robin van Persie right now in the form he’s in? Also, I expect Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain to be given more of a chance and the upcoming game against Leeds United might indicate whether he’s ready. But Thierry Henry comes in when Arsenal require more quality and he still has that. (It must be remembered that it’s more than a year now since he’s been almost injury-free and free of the pain of the Achilles injury that dogged his last year at Arsenal and subsequently affected some of his impact at Barcelona.)

Henry has been brought in to essentially replace two players – Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho – which indicate that an additional attacking signing may still be a possibility. It’s unlikely, though, that he’ll walk into the team because Arsène Wenger has complete trust in the recently maligned Andrei Arshavin having played him in the most games for Arsenal last season. Rather, Henry will be involved mainly in rotation but most importantly perhaps, he’ll be the inspirational figure that Arsenal have so desperately needed in the past.

With Henry, what’s important is not where he’ll play – Wenger envisaged Henry doing more creating had he stayed on at Arsenal rather than relying on pace. (Incidentally threading passes to Jose Antonio Reyes with whom he had a great rapport with on the pitch). He has the chance to do that now in either a “false9”role or as that famous left to centre role instead of in a 442. Henry’s legacy won’t be tainted just because he has come back after his peak for a two month spell. Robbie Fowler returned toLiverpoolin 2006 and although he was not the same player as he once was, the little bit of quality that evokes old memories are the ones that shine through greatest. Besides, it’s not often you get to see your heroes return and that should bring great joy to Arsenal and football fans.

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/arse2mouse/status/152380575246856192″]

Q: For reasons I have never grasped, many people consider Arsène Wenger as slightly tactically inept. Why? And is there some truth to it? @Anserine

A: That myth seems to have originated from his “pre-Invincibles” years and in particular, his unwillingness to make substitutions for tactical reasons. It’s true, his changes are primarily scientific, taking off players like Dennis Bergkamp on 70 minutes because he knew his intensity wouldn’t last beyond that and usually making like-for-like substitutions. But theirin lies the misunderstanding of Wenger because it’s not that he’s tactical inept or incapable of making radical decisions, it’s that his management style is about trusting the expressionism of his players and  the ability to find solutions themselves. That was particularly the case when in charge in his early years and especially of the legendary unit in 03/04 (although the argument is also valid that he could have done more in Europe, tactically). Nowadays, you’ll see more tactical decisions from Wenger and that usually happens when you have a team who’s still learning and still not so confident in their abilities to find solutions as the team is now/has been after the break up of the Invincibles. (Indeed, you have to look back at the Champions League run of 2005/06 to see the beginning of a more hands on approach from Wenger).

When Wenger first stated coaching, he was more meticulous until he gradually realised the players were, indeed, the real game-changers. As Youri Djorkaef once noted at Monaco, Wenger was always about “tactic, tactic, tactic,” although he added: “He would only say two or three things. Positive things, tactical things. He was the only coach in France who worked this way,” highlighting the scope the manager left for players to innovate. Perhaps, though, it’s best to end on Robert Pires’ tweet on Wenger: “Tactically you work a lot. And Wenger makes you work on your qualities. He is perfect.”

Q: It seems like Arsenal struggle more with scoring than conceding. Do you agree and how can they fix it?@MalcolmSouth

What a refreshing thought! Although it’s probably true that Arsenal should be judged more on their attacking play. In terms of whether Arsenal “struggle more with scoring than conceding”, I think it boils down to the type of chances they have and consequently allow opponents to have. Because Arsenal attack with such fervour, they leave more spaces at the back and thus the chances that they concede tend to be of higher quality i.e. more space, time, attacking with speed. (Although their big weakness still remains aerially). In comparison, Arsenal’s chances often have to be manufactured or squeezed therefore their chances tend to be closed down more quickly, need to be processed quicker etc. However, in saying that, Arsenal could be more clinical.

Robin van Persie has had 94 shots this season (the next top-scorer, Demba Ba has 62) but that figure is arbitrary because van Persie is still as clinical as most strikers, converting 18% of his shots (which is a respectable figure). But you’ll have to look at the type of chances he has, often creating chances himself. Of course, looking at the QPR game, he could have scored more than the one goal but then you’ll see that he created at least two chances with his dynamic dribbling and one more that was headed wide. All in spite of a lack of space. It’s not unexpected then, that the goal he scored, was the easiest; a gift from the QPR defence.

Often people ask how Arsenal can improve: the three striker system is placed so Arsenal can be more dynamic and goalscoring coming from more than one source although that is not the case yet. Nevertheless, it must be looked at the role Theo Walcott and Gervinho have in Robin van Persie’s goals. Not having full-backs as much affected Arsenal’s play as they help stretch the play while the return of Jack Wilshere is welcome as his drive and the ability to play through passes is missing. Aaron Ramsey may have improved on the later but he’s hesitant to change the emphasis of Arsenal’s attacks by running with the ball as Wilshere is due to misgivings of his pace. (Ditto Mikel Arteta thus Alex Song’s runs have been key).

As Wenger once said, “the measure of football is the ratio of chances created to to chances conceded” therefore he’ll be the harshest judge of Arsenal’s attacking play.

Q: What advice you would give Wenger to deal with the high pressure Arsenal seem to struggle with?@Darren_V_

It’s true Arsenal have often struggled with high pressure, most spectacularly in the Champions League, although how they got through with one game to spare is a wonderment! What Wenger tends to do is push his central midfielders up the pitch to give his centre-backs more time on the ball. Which is a valid tactic although it doesn’t really answer the question because if they are still pressed, the centre-backs won’t have many options. Arsenal don’t play long-balls so spreading the play laterally is not really the solution. Rather, they could learn from Barcelona and spread the play sideways although that comes with more risk.

The issue, as Backwards Gooner highlighted recently is whether you see it as a problem at the back or at the front. Wenger, against Fulham, saw it at the front so he took of his two under-performing wide players – the two players who should have gave Arsenal a speed outlet but didn’t – in favour of those who keep the ball better – Yossi Benayoun and Tomas Rosicky. It didn’t really work either way because The Gunners were unable to stem Fulham’s attacks and thus they were punished. In that situation, I would have taken a radical option and put on Marouane Chamakh so Arsenal get an out-ball. In one sense though, this Arsenal side has a tendency to be pushed back and thus, Wenger will have to find solutions to correct that problem. Arsenal have looked better when there’s rotation between the midfield to drag opponents out and that remains their most obvious and easiest to implement solution.

<Figure 1: Van Persie passes received v Fulham>Arsenal were unable to respond to Fulham’s second-half pressure and as shown by the passes to van Persie, were unable to get the ball out of the back effectively.

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Fulham 2-1 Arsenal: As it happened

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

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

PS: It wasn’t a foul by Djourou.

92 mins: ZAMORA 2-1: Why bother?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man of the first-half: Aaron Ramsey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arteta under a LOT of pressure at the moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven points on Arsenal 1-0 Queens Park Rangers

Robin van Persie provided the appropriate bookend to 2011, having scored both on the first day of the year and now on the last to give Arsenal a 1-0 win over Queens Park Rangers. Including and in between that time, he has plundered in 35 goals in 36 games making it a phenomenal return for the Dutchman. It’s perhaps inevitable he scored the goal that separated the sides and Arsène Wenger is happy to be both reliant on van Persie and boring – at least, in regards to the result – in this crucial period. As has always been the case, Arsenal had chances to score more than the one while QPR got into a number of promising positions but while their team selection sought to exploit Arsenal in transitions, they were ultimately lacking the sting to take advantage. Here are some (belated) thoughts on the game:

1. Wright-Phillips v Arteta

As touched upon, Neill Warnock named an intriguing side, playing in a 4-3-3 formation. But most interesting was the positioning of Shaun Wright-Phillips who played loosely on the right of central midfield. His role was to break forward quickly when QPR attacked and when they didn’t have the ball, he was detailed to engage the deep passer. In that instruction, he created a passive battle between he and Mikel Arteta.

The Spaniard straight away saw that Wright-Phillips was looking to press him up the pitch whenever he got on the ball so he often drifted towards the right to avoid his attentions. In making that decision, Arteta did the right thing as it encouraged greater rotation between him and Song thus initially allowing Arsenal to dominate. Wright-Phillips, though, remained QPR’s most influential player and despite not always being in direct confrontation with Arteta, it looked like their battle would go some way in deciding the game. Wright-Phillips, with his pace to break and enthusiasm to engage the holding midfielders or Arteta, whether he could get enough of the ball to find Arsenal’s forwards. Indeed, that’s how the goal came about.

Firstly, Wright-Phillips battled with Arteta to send QPR on an attack which eventually led to nothing. From the resulting goal-kick, he collected the ball in midfield but, following the attentions of Arsenal’s midfielders, proceeded to give it away. Andrey Arshavin picked up the loose ball and set van Persie on his way to score and ultimately win the game. As Arshavin tweeted after the game, “sometimes one ball is enough to get three points,” but he could just as easily have been talking about Wright-Phillips’ stray pass and not just than his own.

2. Full-backs stay back

While Arsenal created a number of chances – 18 according to WhoScored.com and winning 12 corners (which we feel is important in recognising a side’s attacking dominance) – they lacked in dynamism somewhat. Johan Djourou rarely made an attempt to discover the opposition half – which might have been a purposeful ploy because his cautiousness allows Theo Walcott to stay up the pitch – but it tends to limit the type of chances Arsenal make (section 4). The problem is that neither full-back is comfortable on the ball in the opponents half and is capable of stretching the play to provide overlaps thus Arsenal’s attacks always follow a certain pattern. On the other hand, Arsène Wenger has tried to compensate by looking to push Aaron Ramsey higher up the pitch and giving the two wide forwards more freedom while they are a more dangerous threat in the air. Wenger says it would be “stupid to drop points” because Arsenal are short of full-backs but that also highlights the delicacy of Arsenal’s play at the moment.

“We are a bit more cautious going forward because a centre back is not a full back,” Wenger recently told Arsenal Player. “Maybe we are a little bit more resilient defensively and a bit stronger in the air but overall it doesn’t change a lot and we still try to play out from the back with our passing game. It’s changed it a little bit.”

<Figure 1>Johan Djourou’s pass received chart shows he’s less involved in the game than Carl Jenkinson in a home fixture against Sunderland earlier this season. While Djourou only acts as a support down the pitch, Jenksin covers the whole flanks to provide overlap and an outlet to stretch play.

3. Francis Coquelin at left-back

Following the injury to Thomas Vermaelen, we saw Arsenal deploy the unfamiliar sight of Francis Coquelin at left-back. And the Frenchman did a good job at it too. Coquelin was positive, picking the ball up and looking to make things happen in the opponents half of the pitch. It shouldn’t be too surprising to hear that as Coquelin is a bold and confident character and the left-back position may just suit him as it’s more central midfield in its actions than at right-back (think Mathieu Flamini in 2005/06). Indeed, there might be a bit of Marcelo Bielsa-like thinking in using Coquelin more at left-back; his runs are generally more vertical and playing with a natural wide forward, he might be an interesting weapon. Sure, it’s not orthodox but that and the unexpectedness of it makes it an interesting option.

<Figure 2>In contrast to Johan Djourou, Francis Coquelin often looked to get high up the pitch. His drive was refreshing and attempted a few unorthodox passes.

4. How Arsenal chances were created

1. A pass from deep looking to get the strikers in behind

2. Aaron Ramsey’s modus operandi: a diagonal to the far post/wide forward

3. Set-piece

4. Robin van Persie

5. A rare moment of surprise/unexpectedness (Johan Djourou’s run to find van Persie) or mistake (the goal). (In that respects, Arsenal are perhaps lacking that dynamism in the dribble that Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby or Cesc Fabregas provided).

5. Theo Walcott makes great runs but fails to deliver

Closely chased down by Armand Traore, Theo Walcott would have felt the breath of the former Arsenal left-back, as well as the watching Thierry Henry down his neck. But just as he realised how close Traore was to him and the sheer pace with which he ran with the ball, Walcott’s touch was rushed and he scuffed his shot. It wasn’t a great day for the winger-come-striker and the frustration on his face was telling. It wasn’t without the want of trying, though, as he constantly found himself in good positions. Indeed, his runs were often fantastic, given the freedom of the touchline but like the whole Arsenal team, lacked the conviction in the final moments. Arguably, his near-open goal miss in the first-half was a worse miss, just highlighting the lack of confidence he has at the moment. On the other hand, Andrey Arshavin just couldn’t get himself in the game and was lucky that a stray pass was gifted to him for his assist. He’s been Wenger’s impact player but at the moment, that seems far from being proved right.

6. Per Mertesacker continues to show his quality

Little has been written about Per Mertesacker. He hasn’t quite been as spectacular as Laurent Koscielny who, bar a couple of rash challenges, was once again superb but he has been consistently solid. Mertesacker reads the game well; so well, in fact, that he rarely has to challenge (his stats show him to be quite passive in that regards). There are still misgivings about his pace but he doesn’t make that obvious because his positioning is excellent. Indeed, Arsenal have conceded the most goals in the league which have been attributed to mistakes and Mertesacker’s problems have generally been closer to goal than up the pitch. In the changing room, Mertesacker is a reliable aide to Robin van Persie but on the pitch, he has settled in quietly – which is how he would want it.

7. Robin van Persie has the last laugh

This time last year, Robin van Persie would probably looked straight in the eye of his calender and said “I want an injury free campaign and goals. Lot’s of goals. You are going to be my bitch.” And certainly, it has been his year, scoring a bucket-load of goals but what’s not been picked on as much is the truck-load of chances he’s had to score them. That shouldn’t be an indictment of his wastefulness as he still has a very good conversion rate (19%), taking 90 shots at 4.7 per game. But rather, we should be talking about how many chances he creates himself by his devastating moving or his sheer unpredictability. He has taken less of a creative role this season as Arsenal have changed their style but that has also been the story of Arsenal this year. Each time Wenger has implemented a series of tactical and strategic changes to their play, van Persie has adapted and consistently delivered the goals. Borussia Dormund coach, Jurgen Klopp, says he finds it amazing that a player who plays so deep in midfield can be such a danger in the box but you just have to study his movement to see why. 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. Which highlights the joy of Robin van Persie at the moment. Long may it continue. He’s deserved it.

Five points on Arsenal 1-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers

Arsenal+v+Wolverhampton+Wanderers+Premier+qpAauNO4tN8l

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

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

1. How the changes saw Arsenal shape up

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

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

2. Robin van Persie more dangerous as the orthodox striker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Wolves defend in a pack

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

Arsenal’s spirit outweighs the notion of a one-man team

It’s become a footballing cliché to do an Arsenal: to promise so much but to inexplicably throw it away. That might happen again this season but if it does, it’s sure to be a boring thud rather than a Crash, Bang, Wallop! back to the ground. And that’s because of the dealings Arsène Wenger made in the summer. They may have been atypically Wenger; late in the window, experienced and in quick succession – panic buys if you will – but by signing proven talent, Wenger knew what he was bringing in. When one of those players scored in their last match, Yossi Benayoun in the 2-1 win over Aston Villa, the joy of the players spoke more than just the importance of the goal or the improbability of it (he’s scored a crucial header against Real Madrid for Liverpool too); it symbolised their new-found spirit driving their quest for glory. “There is a new team spirit at the club,” Laurent Koscielny said. “We are all fighting for each other, we are all united.”

Robin van Persie has spoken of the support the signings have given him after a difficult start (Per Mertesacker might be considered his “consigliere”)  and indeed, Wenger may have been pressed to act after he realised the enormity of the task facing his new captain. Van Persie has led by example on and off the field. He organises weekly team dinners and afternoons together and his team-mates openly appreciate the extra time spent with each other. On the field, van Persie’s goals continue to keep the side alive. Arrigo Sacchi names van Persie as the most “complete striker” and his 16 goals is nearly half the total Arsenal have amassed in the league this season and in the past year, he has hit the net 34 times. The reliance is staggering and it has led some to ask whether Arsenal are a one-man team.

That’s probably a bit harsh because all teams consist of vital cogs which make the whole system function effectively although some more important than others. Mikel Arteta has, until recently been relatively understated, giving Arsenal a control between defence and attack which they have lacked since Gilberto Silva’s departure while the defence looks infinitely more solid now. And Alex Song’s importance continues to be felt most when he’s out of the team.

Wenger admits there is a reliance on van Persie “because he scores many goals” but the statement is not frank as it may first seem. He feels his team do a lot of good approach play but at the moment, the outlet is singular – usually Robin van Persie. However, The Gunners do have someone to call on with capability to give Arsenal’s play a plurality in Yossi Benayoun; a fleet-footed schemer with an art deco finish but Wenger’s adamant his three striker tactic can be deadly and as such, Benayoun misses out. (Given the right creativity – another reason why Benayoun must play more often – and penchant to keep the ball).

On the other hand, Robin van Persie has adapted so fantastically to the striker role that it’s hard to break a working formula. His game is no longer just about scoring glorious goals but making scoring look easy. Either side of him, the two wide forwards have relinquished the spotlight to their captain, setting up 9 of his 20 goals in all competitions. “The two wingers are creating waves while Van Persie dances and plays in the splashes that they make,” says David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Footballto SI.com. If goalscoring is singular, at least Arsenal have improved on last season as creative duties are more spread; Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Gervinho and Alex Song all have four or more assists. Although, so too does van Persie himself.

Arsenal’s reliance on van Persie is nothing new. To a certain extent, all teams lean towards one or two individuals and it’s fair to say, some successful teams wouldn’t enjoy anywhere the same level of achievement without that one SPECIAL player. Even Brazil’s great sides in the late 50’s to early 70’s may have owed a lot of their success to Pele (although Garrincha proved just as deadly). It’s evident Barcelona would not be the same side without Lionel Messi although he surrounds himself with a stellar supporting cast. Yet there is a feeling, take him out, and they would be just like the Spanish national team; brilliantly gifted but the ultimate procrastinators. France’s 1982-84 team took a novel approach with one of their best individuals, shifting Michel Platini around to suit the match rather than the team. It worked to great effect as Platini scored 9 goals in the 1984 European Championships. The idea of a one-man team may have been a realistic notion in the past but in the modern game, teams are more geared to the collective and as such, harder to ascertain. Robin van Persie would be quick to point out the hard work of his team-mates and that, it seems, is the real secret to Arsenal’s turnaround this season.

Arsenal 1-0 Everton: Robin van Persie’s bolt from the blue gives Arsenal the win

Sometimes, the textbook way isn’t always the right way. That’s what David Moyes and Everton found out and in the end, they were outdone by a stunning volley from Robin van Persie. The goal didn’t look like coming in the second-half – while Robin van Persie had one of his most ineffective games yet this season – and that was due to the turnaround in tactics by Moyes.

Everton actually rode their luck in the first-half as Arsenal contrived to spoil good openings. First Theo Walcott delayed too long a pass to Gervinho before it was cut out while Aaron Ramsey chipped over when he could have finished first time. The positive to take from it though, from The Gunners perspective, was that they were able to pick gaps through a normally bullish Everton defence but lacked polish in the execution. That made it a frenetic first-half in comparison to the second, which Arsenal lumbered through before van Persie’s goal. That the goal came as it did was surprising although the build up consisted of what Arsenal did well in the first-half; quick interchange in central midfield before a blink-of-an-eye pass to find the run of a striker. Robin van Persie’s movement was brilliant; his strike even better but the pass that led to the goal will continue to go underrated. Though, the fact that it came from Alex Song shouldn’t be a surprise considering he attempted 7 through-passes in the game and the figure is a great testament to how far he has come. It wasn’t just the urgency he brings in possession, he has a balletic-like grace which covers the field and breaks up many opposition attacks. Proof that his unassuming style goes unnoticed, The Sun only gave Song a 7 for what we see as a man-of-the-match performance while the more visceral impact of Walcott and van Persie saw them receive 8 and 10(!) respectively.

First-half  to second-half: Everton’s approach

Good technique, though while widely accepted as an essential weapon, is rarely seen as a game-changing factor in the grand scheme of a result. Having good technique usually means simply being able to control the ball easily, weigh passes appropriately or maintain one’s balance when shooting. Occasionally, however, technique is the difference between winning and losing. Robin van Persie’s expert strike came as a sucker-punch to Everton as it undid all their hard-work to correct their faults in the first and after that, they never had the energy to get back in it.

Truthfully, though, they should have been out of it in the first 45 minutes as they simply allowed Arsenal too much room. It wasn’t meant to happen that way but the way modern footballers have been programmed tactically, it happened habitually. David Moyes wanted Everton to play compactly and thus squeezing the space for The Gunners in their half. But to remain compact, it means the team moving together as a unit and as the textbook says, that means the defence has to push up. We all know by now, however, that to play against Arsenal, you cannot give them space behind and Everton did that constantly in the first-half. Phil Jagielka and Johnny Heitinga were unable to get close when the ball was played quickly around the corner but fortunately for them, they weren’t punished. In the second-half, however, they dropped deeper and that extra 5m they had spare, they were able to survey the threat better and anticipate the passes. That figure is shown by the dramatic rise in interceptions, which was only at a lowly 7 in the first, going up to 17 in the second. Denying Arsenal of that out-ball down the channels, Everton were able to frustrate Arsenal and prevent them from finding any fluency.

David Moyes said: “The high line wasn’t necessarily the plan but we wanted to limit Arsenal and that means midfielders have to go and get close to Arsenal’s midfielders. If you do that then the back four have to move up too. We wanted to disrupt Arsenal’s passing and win the ball early. If we came and parked the bus you would be saying why did we not have a go, well we did, and if you do that you are always going to give Arsenal some opportunities.

“We tried to get at them,” he added. “I thought we got into some great positions to make opportunities, great positions to deliver crosses and we either never delivered them or never completed the move.”

<Figure 1> Everton failed to get compact in the first-half and simply allowed Arsenal too much room to play through the middle and into the channels. As a result, their interception count was at a low 7. In the second-half, they dropped deeper and were able cut off Arsenal play and frustrate them. To highlight the effectiveness of the change, Phil Jagielka made all five of his interceptions in the second-half. Linked to Arsenal in the summer, does his preference for the deeper game indicate why Arsenal weren’t fully convinced by him?

First-half  to second-half: Arsenal’s approach

While it may fall down partly to Everton’s tactics that Arsenal looked more potent in the first, their expert ball rotation also allowed them to dominate as they did. Aaron Ramsey was given a “free role” to get to the end of Arsenal’s attacks and roam around the front-line for the ball. It was a typically energetic performance from the Welshman and it’s interesting that Arséne Wenger has pushed him up higher in the last few games. It’s a tactical role as he often has to mark the first midfielder to stop the pass out of the defence but, in the coming games, the role might have just become more important.

<Figure 2> The effectiveness of Arsenal in the first-half in comparison to the second can be displayed by the passing received charts of Ramsey. In the opening period, he as able to roam around the pitch in search for possession, rotating eith his teammates before getting on the end of moves. In the second-half, his movement remained almost exclusively to the middle showing how Everton disrupted Arsenal’s fluency.

The reason why Wenger is more willing to push him up the pitch might be due to the lack of penetration provided by the full-backs. Of course, being central defenders by trade as they are, getting forward and providing the width can only be expected to be a secondary duty so extra drive has to come from elsewhere. Therefore, Wenger feels he can afford to take the risk and commit an extra body forward because he’ll have two cautious full-backs back anyway. As a result in this encounter, Everton were able to get plenty of room down the flanks, getting into a number of one-on-one situations but failing to deliver dangerously. (Everton made more crosses than Arsenal but were poor on one-on-ones, only getting past 3 out of 8 times in wide areas).

<Figure 3> Again, the compactness of Everton in the second period can be shown by where Theo Walcott recieved his passes. In the first, and Everton playing a high-line, he was played in more often behind the defence. However, in the next period, he was forced to drop deeper in search of possession.

Eight points on Arsenal 1-1 Fulham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Johan Djourou’s passes in either half.

4. Walcott impresses as a winger

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

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

5. Bobby Zamora didn’t fancy Per Mertesacker

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

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Bobby Zamora picked the ball up mainly on the left.

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

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

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8. Van Persie the creator

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

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

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

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

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

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