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

1. Arsenal find defensive efficiency…

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

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

2. …but does it come at a cost?

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

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

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

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

3. Aaron Ramsey adds clever to his tireless running

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

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

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

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

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

4. Santi Cazorla is central to Arsenal’s plans

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

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

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

5. Thomas Vermaelen might have to accept being third best

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

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

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

6. Shared goalscoring a real success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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8. Kieran Gibbs shines

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

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

9. Jack Wilshere has too much attacking potential

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

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

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

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Carl Jenkinson has risen to the responsibility

Carl-Jenkinson

Football players often talk about fulfilling “dreams”; as if the vocation they are already in isn’t one. But when they speak of fulfilling “dreams”, it often encompasses to some degree, a revision of the ones they had in their childhood: playing for the best team possible, winning your first international cap, or like a New Star Soccer game, progression from anonymity to super-stardom  beginning from the lower echelons of the football league to the team that you support. Of course, it rarely happens that way but for one player in particular, he can realistically say he is “living the dream”.

Two years ago, Carl Jenkinson was playing in the Blue Square Premier League with Eastbourne before he spent another loan spell at non-league side Welling United FC. He had barely played ten games for his parent club, Charlton Athletic, before the unexpected call from Arsenal came. It might have had something to do with former coach, Phil Parkinson, who spent a brief time at Arsenal after he was sacked although Arsène Wenger insists Jenkinson was under the radar for a while, particularly because of his stints with Finland U-19 and U-21. “It was a very steep learning curve for me,” says Jenkinson. “I believed I was capable of playing at the highest level, and sometimes it is about getting seen by the right people at the right time.”

Jenkinson was instantly thrust into the limelight in his début season and endured some difficult periods but this season, at the age of 20, he has matured into a dependable figure for Arsenal. In his latest matchagainst Montpellier at the intimate Stade de la Mosson, and particularly up against the intense pressure the team faced in the second-half,Jenkinson came out with a much-heralded performance. His low cross to assist Gervinho for Arsenal’s winner capped a superb all-round display.

Jenkinson‘s presence in the starting eleven has seemingly been steadier than his counterpart on the other side, Kieran Gibbs, who has caught the eye with marauding runs and his understanding with LukasPodolski. (Of Arsenal’s ten goals this season, eight featured build up from the left and only two towards the right). In some ways, that’sJenkinson‘s job; acting as a balancer for Arsenal as they press-on with more fruitful combinations on the other side. Indeed, one of the reasons for Arsenal’s defensive success this season has been the cautiousness of their full-backs.

The team worked on it extensively in pre-season but old habits just as quickly resurfaced when Arsenal entered the field for their first match of the season against Sunderland. As early as the eleventh minute, SteveBould noticed that twice, Sunderland had opportunities to score from attacks originating from fast breaks down the channels. Therefore, he instructed the full-backs to be more aware whenever they get forward. Thereafter, The Black Cats mounted no serious threat and of the 84 teams that played in the Football League and Premier League in the first weekend, they were the only side not to win a corner. Perhaps the cautiousness has suited Jenkinson because it was the area he was considered weakest – positionally – and in the tour of Asia against Manchester City, that was exposed. Can he show just how far he has progressed in a small space of time in the upcoming game against them? Certainly, the way Arsenal defend now, getting back into a compact 4-4-1-1 shape and the wingers double up have protected him much better.

There is, however, a flip-side to instructing your full-backs not to get forward as frequently. Because, as we know from last season in particular, when Arsenal were stripped of all of their natural full-backs, it has had a big effect on the team’s fluency getting forward. It was one of the reasons why Arsenal failed to get off the mark after their first two games of the season. Full-backs are now one of the most crucial positions on the pitch; they often start as the “free” man and also need to possess the all-round game to make a difference at both ends of the pitch. Arsene Wenger says “having a full-back who creates is an important part of winning.” Indeed, I’d put down Wigan Atheltic’s miraculous turnaround last season to the signing of left wing-back JeanBeausejour. Before he arrived at the club, Roberto Martinez used a central midfielder, David Jones, in that position. Before defeat to Swansea in March, they were hovering in the relegation zone; 11 games later, they had picked up 23 points out of33. In a strange way, JeanBeausejour gave the team balance and in that sense, we are seeing the same thing with Arsenal and their two full-backs this season.

Last season, I talked a lot about the bias Arsenal had towards the right-side and the subtle various it had on Arsenal’s play; the runs of TheoWalcott to break out of the triangles they created while the use of a right-footed winger on the left meant play tended to slant anyway. This season, Arsenal are using both flanks equally as much – indicating how well they are switching the ball from side to side – but it’s interesting to note *how* the build-up differs on each side.

attack-sides

As we can see from the player influence diagram below and the pass graphics, the build up is deeper on the right-hand side than it is on the left. This might be for a number of reasons; (i) Thomas Vermaelen’s tendencies to step out thus allowing Gibbs to advance higher up the pitch; (ii) Per Mertesacker acting as the “stopper” therefore staying deeper while (iii) Mikel Arteta usually starts towards the right of the double-pivot. And (iv) Arsenal’s best combination play, between SantiCazorla, Lukas Podolski and one of the central midfielders, happens on the left.

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That difference between two flanks can be shown by the chalkboards of Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs in the game against Sunderland. (It’s the mirror image of last season where the build up generally started deeper on the left as opposed to the right. Click here to see example).

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Gibbs is allowed the freedom to get forward more easily due to more options around him. As a result, his passes are less frequent and involve a lot of “give-and-goes”. One might say the responsibility is considerably less in this regard for Gibbs as opposed to Jenkinson who is asked to be “out-ball” for Arteta or Mertesacker. By the same token, Jenkinson has a tougher task passing the ball out because he often has to go inside or back. As such, opposition might press him higher up the pitch. That was certainly the case against Montpellier Who doubled up on Jenkinsonwhenever Arsenal moved the ball wide. And because of Gervinho’s propensity to drift inside, he never really was an option for Jenkinson to pass to down the line. (Click here to open .PDF file to see average positions). Nevertheless, Jenkinson handled the pressure superbly and when he did get forward, he whipped the ball a fantastic ball forGervinho to score. It’s the one part of his game which he hasn’t quite delivered on this season although we know just how well he can cross it – Jenkinson has made 15 tackles so far in the Premier League, joint seventh with four other players – but just like the mantra that has pervaded the collective this season, Jenkinson realises that he has a job, first and foremost, to do for the team. And he’s quietly risen to the responsibility.

Five points on Arsenal 1-2 Wigan Athletic (and more!)

As Thomas Vermaelen made the pass forward, he ran into space making sure he did a double-take to check who’s around him. Not for any Wigan Athletic players, though – they were long camped in their own half by now. But for Alex Song, who was lurking to the right of the centre-circle. Vermaelen wanted him to fill him as he embark on another one of his runs up the pitch and why not? He had already scored one. However, as much as his constant forays forward are a weapon for Arsenal, they’re also a debilitating influence and Song’s reaction indicated that. The Cameroonian midfielder was reluctant to constantly drop back for what he felt was a disruption to the team’s structure and an inefficient use of personnel. In the end, Vermaelen neither went up or stayed back, continuing to remonstrate with Song.

If that moment on 65 minutes encapsulated Arsenal’s lack of cohesion in the 2-1 defeat to Wigan, it also did their desperation because they gave everything. The trouble was, Wigan gave more. And in a season when The Emirates finally felt like their own, this was one of Arsenal’s worst performances at their new home. But to phrase it that way round is to do a disservice to Wigan who outwitted and outran Arsenal to deliver a famous – and important – win.

For a moment, it didn’t look like they would quite hold on as Arsenal lay siege to the Wigan goal, despite taking a quite breathtaking two-goal lead. But they did, defending resolutely to block chances that came at them and in the second-half, they were so expertly organised that they never gave Arsenal a real chance on goal. And to put into context just how brilliant they smothered Arsenal attacks, they were also a threat at the other end, delivering 7 shots on target – the most by any away side at The Emirates this season.

Arsène Wenger had no answer. Or rather, he had no answer to the circumstances that befell his side, conceding two early goals. He said before the match, when asked about how he will counteract Wigan’s 3-4-3/5-4-1, to just “watch the game”and certainly, he would never have expected to fall behind that quickly. But to credit Wenger in his own unique way, he never used that as an excuse and you wouldn’t expect him to, after the way in which Arsenal have clawed back deficits this season. But it surely affected Arsenal’s gameplan and by the start of the second-half, just as they did against Milan, they ran out of energy. Indeed, it also highlighted just why it’s dangerous to draw too many conclusions from this good run of form because such an intensity – especially after conceding – is hard to sustain. Arsenal have been at their best when their emotionally-charged – which indicates a strength of character in a different sense as they’ve also managed to retain a level of control – but Wigan was the type of game which a different mentality was required. The use of Yossi Benayoun might even be an indication that Wenger is not drawing too much from this run too for next season except for breeding confidence and developing an understanding of a certain game plan and Benayoun allows them to achieve that. (Wenger talks of his application and work-rate but in all reality, is only being used to get them to third place – he’s unlikely to stay on).

The substitution of Benayoun on 60 minutes confirmed to some what they already felt about Wenger’s in-game management; that it’s his weakness. Certainly, it’s not that Gervinho entered the fray although he too was ineffective – and the fans wanted Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – it’s that it probably shouldn’t have been Benayoun that went off. Theo Walcott just could not get into the game. The lack of space in front and the shape Wigan deployed meant it stopped Bacary Sagna from overlapping and that affected Walcott’s influence. Another one of Wenger’s subs, and one which there was little to argue about, Aaron Ramsey, couldn’t also make an impact. The Welshman’s passing was slow and in his recent run of games, he’s not been able to show the energy he did earlier this season. Certainly he was affected by the relatively new, and important, role he was playing filling in for Mikel Arteta and as a result, his pressing and positioning suffered. When Oxlade-Chamberlain did enter the field, he did in central midfield and proceeded to try to do too much. His runs often led to blind alleys (showing how much Arsenal miss Jack Wilshere’s drive) and he probably needed a powerful player like Song to alternate with. He went slotted into centre-back, replacing Johan Djourou who had a fine game if a bit anxious on the ball giving Wenger no choice but to sacrifice him.

That Wenger pointed to a lack of players that could make a “difference” despite having the bulk of his attacking players on, showed just how well Wigan defended and how Arsenal still have a lot of work to be done. It’s been a fine run but that can’t hide deficiencies or areas that need improving. 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 – and they were punished for that. And strength-in-depth will be key next season, especially if they want to play with this intensity, however, Arsenal just could not find a way past Wigan even if they threw everything at them.

1. The effect of Vermaelen’s runs

Thomas Vermaelen has so much natural talent: He’s good on the ball, mobile, strong in the air and plays with a determined attitude but there are habits to his game that he must iron out. In the recent defeat to QPR – which they lost by the same scoreline – his impetuousness ultimately conceded the two goals and while he can’t be claimed to be directly at fault here, his constant forays forward at times, did have a domino effect on the team’s structure. Because that meant Song couldn’t be used higher up the pitch and often moved away from the middle where he should be as he was needed to fill in, while Andre Santos was often forced narrow so Arsenal could remain compact. Wenger may have allowed Vermaelen to continue bombing forward because he felt there was little inspiration in the team – he admitted that after the game – and it’s been a huge weapon for The Gunners, but Arsenal might have been more effective with a more orthodox structure. In the second-half, most of the play was going down the left and perhaps if Song was allowed to sit as an orthodox holding midfielder, it would have allowed Santos the freedom to bomb forward. But everything Wenger did tried, doomed to fail; the players had expended too much energy and had no ideas to Wigan’s organisation.

2. Arsenal’s pressing in the first-half without Arteta

Arsenal might be excused for feeling hard done by when conceding the first goal because it effectively came with ten men and that the man who was injured in the lead up, Mikel Arteta, was supposed to be the one tracking Franco Di Santo. But for the second they were punished when they did have ten men – Arsenal unable to make the change quick enough and after neat skill from Victor Moses, bundled the ball in. Arsenal’s gameplan altered drastically in the space of two minutes meaning they had no choice but to go for it. As a result, their pressing suffered as Aaron Ramsey wa still adjusting to the intensity. In the first-half, The Gunners were too open when pressing and particularly when the ball was played early from the back. Tomáš Rosický pressed alongisde Robin van Persie almost as a 4-4-2 – as he normally might do although with a bit more recklessness – and Alex Song followed. Aaron Ramsey did neither. He was the spare man in the midfield and the one who would drop into space as Arteta might. As a result, Wigan had plenty of space in between which, although they didn’t profit from after, gave Arsenal a few problems.

3. Wigan’s back five restrict Walcott

Wigan suffered an onslaught in the first-half, in particular, and survived with only conceding one goal against. Yet, their strategy of defending deep and sacrificing a midfield player for a centre-back probably invited that. Nevertheless, while it set up for a display of defensive fortitude, it stopped one crucial area of Arsenal’s game from developing; that of the overlapping runs. Theo Walcott, above all suffered as he was unable to manufacture any space to run in behind. Not only did Wigan double up on the flanks – they tripled up – and the one opportunity he did get, Walcott might have been aggrieved that it didn’t lead to more as Maynor Figueroa looked to have fouled him when closing in on goal. Behind him, Victor Moses did a brilliant job occupying Sagna and denying him the chance to get forward. Indeed, the threat Moses posed behind the full-back was a constant danger.

4. Arsenal’s attack sides in both halves

When Arsenal are at their best – or close to it – it can be indicated by the side they favour most: often the right-hand side. In the first-half, while they lay barrage to the Wigan goal, they mostly slanted to the right and were able to create combinations just inside of that area. Rosický in particular, revelled and it’s noticeable that his impact waned in the second-half when Arsenal’s play was scattered, if anything leaning towards the left. That’s not a patch on Santos who had a solid game contrary to common conception – because he also had to fill for Vermaelen – but because Arsenal have less associations on the left. Santos has no direct in-between midfielder playing in front of him – Arteta, Song and Ramsey are often biased towards the right – and that’s why Benayoun is key to this layout. The give-and-goes that were required to break down this Wigan defence never materialised. Rosický, who has been key to making Arsenal dynamic and penetrative with his turn and drive, couldn’t play off the pockets that are normally created though combinations and as a result, their best player of the first period, suffered.

Rosicky was superb in the first-half, linking play and providing the impetus. But he tailed off in the second as Arsenal lost fluidity following substitutions and energy. As a result, most of his play was scattered compared to the first period where he could revel in the combination play particularly out on the right – where he crossed for the assist.

5. Ramsey’s passing

This might be interesting to know RE Ramsey (who made most passes for Arsenal tonight). WARNING: Old quote.

Wenger: “If I know that the passing ability of a player is averaging 3.2 seconds to receive the ball and pass it, and suddenly he goes up to 4.5, I can say to him, ‘Listen, you keep the ball too much, we need you to pass it quicker.’ If he says ‘no’, I can say look at the last three games – 2.9 seconds, 3.1, 3.2, 4.5. He’ll say, ‘People around me don’t move so much!’ But you have the statistics there to back you up, too.”

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.

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.

Tactical observations from Arsenal 0-2 Liverpool

With his feet up and tapas in convenient reach, Cesc Fábregas would have been watching Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat to Liverpool with more than a bit of familiarity about it. While a makeshift and inexperienced team performed admirably, they always looked like they needed something special – someone special – to lift them. That burden often fell on Fábregas but on Saturday, he was able to sit back at home safe in the knowledge that he had chewed out of the bear trap that had began to stagnate him.

Watching as a fan, he could see the creativity Arsenal were missing and as it turned out, the Gunners failed to make count, a twenty-minute period they were dominating before Emmanuel Frimpong’s sending-off. Kenny Dalglish instantly reacted although it was forthcoming one way or another and the substitutions of Luis Suarez and Raul Miereles helped win the game. While Liverpool were the more experienced side, they were inexperienced in the fact they had little played with each other before hand and the 4-3-3 failed to expose Arsenal’s openness in midfield. Suarez in particular, frequently got in between the lines when he came on – something Liverpool’s midfield previously failed to do – and with the man advantage, the movement was too much. Wenger tried to react, moving from the 4-4-1 shape they had after the dismissal to a 4-3-2 but Suarez confirmed the win with a tap in. It was a game lacking technical quality and any real match-winners before Dalglish made the changes. Here are some thoughts:

Samir Nasri gives Arsenal a technical quality

  • If Arsenal gave an improved performance to the one against Newcastle, it was probably down to Samir Nasri. His inclusion was necessary as the Gunners were without so many of their first-choice midfielders and if the patchwork team was to funtion effectively, it needed a link player. To be fair, Nasri has failed to impress in pre-season as the furthermost midfielder but his quality was apparent here without ever fully exerting his craft. As we’ve noted in an earlier article, Arsenal want to play the ball forward quicker and pass it around with speed. Part of the remit is using dynamic forwards on the wings but for the style to work, it needs accurate passers. Nasri may not be part of that future but Arsenal need plenty more players of his ilk if he goes.

Frimpong can mature into a great player

  • With his Noah Puckerman haircut, Emmanuel Frimpong looked like he was only here for a ruckus. And sure enough after eight minutes he was walking on a disciplinary tight rope after a needless row with Jordan Henderson. His sending-off in the second-half seemed inevitable but unfortunately for Arsenal, it also came at a time when they were beginning to get on top. Frimpong himself was dominant in the middle – when Boca Juniors came over for the Emirates Cup they waxed lyrical about the way he married technique with brute strength to keep Juan Roman Riquelme quiet for much of the game – hurrying Liverpool in possession and using the ball intelligently. His passing, encouragingly for a defensive midfielder, was often forward and he gave Arsenal impetus with his drive but his inability to tackle affected Arsenal. He was naïve and excitable but he would have won a lot of plaudits for the way he held the midfield because at times, the amount of space he had to cover would have overwhelmed even the most experienced of professionals. It was probably the reason why Frimpong always looked like going off; the midfield was too open and that made the margin off error in the tackle that more tighter.

Arsenal lacking shape

  • “It’s impossible to replace Fabregas by another Fabregas. We’ll replace him by what we have: Wilshere, Ramsey, maybe Chamberlain,” said Wenger and it seems his answer to replacing his former captain in the meantime is to implement a shared role. This season, Arsenal’s shape is more closer to a 4-3-3 although in the matches against Udinese and Liverpool – less so against Newcastle where the midfield rotation was better – it may be worth making the distinction that it was even closer to a 4-1-2-3. The “1-2” is important as often, the two in front of the holder look to push further forward and press. However, it’s looked more than a bit disjointed recently; Nasri’s discipline was poor in the first-half and Aaron Ramsey has failed to find his place in the system in both the last two games. Frimpong was exposed despite his best efforts and while Arsenal were more secure in the second-half, they are still without a link between midfield and attack.
  • The return of Jack Wilshere can’t come soon enough it seems and he may just as well important linking the play from deep as he is further up. Because in the first-half, Liverpool got tight to Arsenal’s midfielders and pressed them high thus denying the ball out. Wilshere should help Arsenal’s ball circulation and is more comfortable making a double-pivot when the side needs it. Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons for Arsenal’s disorganisation is the fact that the formation is designed to flit in and out of a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 but it lacks the application at the moment to make it work.

Thomas Vermaelen makes Arsenal more secure

  • One plus for Arsenal, however, was the performance of ThomasVermaelen. He won almost everything  and often compensated for the errors and inexperience of others. Even with two left-footers at the back and one of them a debutant in Ignasi Miquel, he was still unflustered and even tried to give Arsenal some impetus with his surging runs. It’s no coincidence Laurent Koscielny looks better at the back with Vermaelen but as soon as quick as one solution was found, another problem arises and sure enough, Koscielny was forced off with a back spasm. It compounded more misery to a makeshift back four who, by playing one inexperienced full-back and one on the wrong side, were unable to bring the ball out effectively.

Forwards ineffective

  • While one may wonder why Theo Walcott merited an autobiography this early in his career, the revelation that Fabio Capello tried to curb his runs inside is a curious insight. Here against Liverpool, it set an interesting backdrop to whatever he did but whatever he did, were almost irrelevant. His runs inside were of little use if Arsenal failed to hold the ball effectively and by drifting inside early on in Arsenal’s build-up, was not available to pick the ball up out wide. Nevermind he was marked out of the game by the fantastic Jose Enrique, those runs have become less useful if Arsenal are not working the ball well. That almost also makes the work of Robin van Persie redundant as his movement to drop deep to find space was effective last season because of the central build up before switching the play wide. Not the other way round at is increasingly becoming now.