The evolution of Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale

While Gareth Bale often finds his free-kicks hit the back of the net with pinpoint accuracy, Theo Walcott can sometimes see his shanked horribly off-target. Both practice hard at set-pieces; Theo Walcott more so on his technique than necessarily trying to craft a niche from such shooting opportunities. For Gareth Bale, detail is everything, from the stance to the run up, and he strikes the ball in particular way so that it achieves maximum top spin rather than bend.

From that example, one might dissect a harsh conclusion of the paths of the two careers, but come the North London Derby on Sunday; both will start the match at roughly the same places of their football careers. And at 6pm, one might even overtake the other.

For most people, with both players at 23 years old, Bale is in front. His form has been scintillating for the last two years but never has he played better than he is now. He models his game conspicuously on Cristiano Ronaldo and may soon reach his level. But while Bale admits admiration for the 2008 Ballon d’Or winner, he identified this evolution last season under Harry Redknapp. Indeed, the same can be said of Theo Walcott, who has finally been given his chance to play as a central striker having been destined to play there in his head at least, since he was placed under the wing of Theirry Henry. However, if there is uncertainty about one of the player’s future and excitement about the other’s, it’s because Gareth Bale’s style just fits better in today’s game.

“He is quick and powerful, technically gifted and can strike the ball ferociously with his left foot,” eulogised one piece by Jonathan Wilson for the Guardian, summing up why Bale has provoked such joy among spectators. If the modern game’s fixation on conditioning has a means to an end, it’d be a player like Gareth Bale. Theo Walcott, on the other hand, has bags of pace but wants to play as a poacher, a position which was horribly exposed as a dated craft against the might of Bayern Munich (although Arsene Wenger has still used Walcott up front in a number of high-profile games). To be fair to Walcott, his finishing is probably his other great trait (although, and while I don’t want to encourage comparisons, you wouldn’t say it’s massively superior to Bale who is deadly anywhere from about 45 degrees from the centre of the goal.

The main objective, though, of both players is to play with freedom so that they can be explosive and for that, credit must go to the coaches.Gareth Bale has talked highly about the tactical structure put in place by manager, Andre Villas-Boas, which allows him to cut inside with the security that his position is covered. Tottenham Hotspur work rigorously on shape in training. For Wenger, the deployment of Walcott centrally has been years in the making, stating that by playing a player wide, it allows him to “get used to using the ball in a small space, as the touchline effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player back to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.” That probably explains the apprehension in not using Walcott in a striking position earlier and certainly, in recent months, his dribbling has improved dramatically. There’s still uncertainty about what is Theo Walcott’s best position but given the freedom he’s been allowed by Wenger, has allowed him to turn in more consistent, game-changing performances. (Although the by-product is that it has said to have exposed Bacary Sagna, and perhaps that’s an area Villas-Boas’s side have the upper-hand over Arsenal).

The evolution of the Bale and Walcott ties in nicely too, with my piece two years ago on the contrasting styles of the two players. Because, while comparisons between the pair are always going to persist, they’re actually more similar in role now than they were even last season when both played as wingers. Then, Bale was the traditional touchline hugger and Walcott a modern-day inside forward, attempting to profit from the spaces in between the full-back and the centre-back (something which he still does frequently now).

Freedom has made both players more effective, although for Bale it’s made the bigger difference. Two seasons ago, when I wrote a piece entitled, “Crossing is football’s greatest divide” I concluded that Bale’s style of getting to the byline and getting crosses in is very inefficient and almost out-dated. The statistics concurred, finding that although 27% of all goals scored in 2010/11 came from crosses, only 1.6% of ALL crosses lead to goals. Bale’s return was similar at 2%. Walcott’s, whose style was about timing his runs and then measuring crosses if need be on the other hand, was 53%. A professor, Jan Vecer from the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, has taken this research further and published a paper (which you can download here) highlighting the negative impact crossing has on scoring.

Since the change in style, to a roaming role, Bale has doubled his goalscoring output on each of the last two seasons with 15 goals. His assists have dropped this season, creating only one goal (although he’s setting up much more chances than he did in previous seasons), indicating that he’s become more self-centred with more freedom. However, if Bale read Vecer’s paper today, “Crossing in Soccer has a Strong Negative Impact on Scoring: Evidence from the English Premier League”, it’d give him very sound advice, telling him to give up crossing altogether. Because conversely, despite the change in role, Bale is actually crossing more! Vecer says that teams like Arsenal and Tottenham “have the potential to score one more extra game per match if they reduced open [play] crossing.”

Certainly, that’s not what Theo Walcott’s game is about although circumstances dictate he puts the ball into the box more than he should. Statistically, though, he is doing the right things and with 11 goals and 8 assists in the league, Walcott might actually be the key player when the North London Derby kicks-off at 4pm on Sunday.

Seven points on Arsenal 1-0 Stoke City

1. Arsenal revert back to type to win

In the end, it was probably appropriate that Lukas Podolski scored from a free-kick. Because it was a game in which Arsenal struggled to create chances through their established way of playing, as Stoke defended deep and forced Arsenal to try and find a different way to score – usually through crosses. And it generally did work, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Olivier Giroud and to a lesser extent, Laurent Koscielny, spurning good chances from corners. However, the best chance Arsenal did create in the first-half actually came from a quick, flowing move which started with Giroud dropping deep and then spinning away from his marker wwith a deft touch and ended with Oxlade-Chamberlain’s shot tipped wide.

If chances few and far were created through an extended passing move, it’s not as if Arsenal played badly. It’s true, that for the most part they were a bit ponderous, with Abou Diaby tending to slow down play. But when he got into the mood, like the rest of his Arsenal team-mates, and played like they can with quick give-and-goes and getting runners beyond quickly, some of Arsenal’s play with a joy to watch. It wasn’t quite as scintillating as their performances in the second-halves against both Liverpool and Chelsea where I can’t overstate enough, just how good it was. Put it this way, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Arsenal ping the ball one-touch accurately to feet like that.

So perhaps it was apt in the end that Lukas Podolski did score because when he and Santi Cazorla both came on, it gave Arsenal something different. Or rather, got them playing the way they normally play. Which is a bit worrying in a sense because it suggests that they’re still very reliant on a core XI of players but make no bones about, this is the way Arsenal must play. They were probably too reliant on wing-play for 60 minutes of the game as Arsene Wenger chose to go with two wingers because he knew Stoke would defend narrow, and as such, their most potent outlet was Theo Walcott on the right. Lukas Podolski, on the other hand, is another striker that Arsenal like to play on the wings but he is different to Walcott in that he’s not so direct. Actually, he fits in imperceptibly to Arsenal’s give-and-go style and his partnership on the left side with Cazorla, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere looks so potent at the moment.

2. Assured début for Monreal

There could be no greater culture shock for Nacho Monreal than Stoke City for his English league debut and fears whether he could mix it with the physical stuff were allayed when he bloodied Jonathan Walters in an unfortunate clash of heads. Actually, it was probably the type of collision a rookie would make but for everything else, Monreal looked very assured.

He started the game cautiously but grew more confident in the second-half and played in some telling crosses. At £8m, Monreal is not just a back-up; he’s someone in full ownership of his career and will challenge Gibbs for a starting berth from the off. His passing was neat here, which is what you’d expect from a Spaniard (although his first club, Osasuna, were noted for being the most Stoke-like team in La Liga). It’s tactically, though, which he might be a step up for Wenger as he is positionally sound and is built a bit like a centre-back, giving balance to both sides of defence.

Monreal v Stoke

3. Improved defensive display (but it was only Stoke)

How can one explain the difference in performances which can see Arsenal defend as securely as they did here and so jittery in their last few matches? Thomas Vermaelen says they have started recent matches cautiously as they chose to sit and examine opponents’ approaches but as we’ve found out, it’s often proved costly in first-halves. At least it would be easier against Stoke, if that’s even possible to say, because everyone knows how they play. And indeed, Wenger admitted that his side prepared mentally for this test which saw them hardly conceded anything from set-pieces. Of course, Stoke City are a different team away than they are at the Britannia Stadium and often, they were pushed so far back by Arsenal that they couldn’t build out with long passes.

If anything, it hints at Arsenal’s problems being psychological, both from a defensive viewpoint and an attacking one. Because going forward, it demands a certain level of understanding and intuition, and defensively, a lack of confidence often pervades the team and its fans. It’s gotten to the point where nervousness has become self-perpetuating, and The Emirates can be a difficult place to play. However on Saturday, the fans were fully behind their team.

From a tactical perspective, Wenger says defensive frailties are a consequence of “our philosophy.” It’s true; attack is a form of Arsenal’s defence, not necessarily in the form of pressing but when the team keeps the ball, it keeps trouble away from their goal. However, it’s when they lose the ball that sometimes Arsenal are not adequately prepared. Often both full-backs push forwards at the same time while Arsenal style anyway, demands resources to be committed to the attack quickly, exposing the backline.

Arsenal’s style is inherently risky but not anymore so than Barcelona, who achieve equilibrium by pressing intensely and strategically while suffocating opponents by religiously keeping the ball. Arsenal’s Champions League opponents, Bayern Munich actually play very similar but while he difference can even be amounted to a 3-5% possession variation or better players, they are probably just better at controlling the nuances of attacking play than Arsenal. Indeed, a study in the 1960’s from the labs of Dynamo Kiev says that “a team that makes errors in no more than 15 to 18% of its acts is unbeatable.” You do this by making the pitch as big as possible when you have the ball and as small as possible when you don’t. Arsenal achieved the latter against Stoke but need to do it more consistently if they are to be more competitive.

4. Arteta still the man

Often managers have their favourites and it’s undeniable that Mikel Arteta is Wenger’s. Arteta represents exactly what Wenger wants from his midfielders tactically: someone that can pass the ball and tackle, and from his position, Arteta is his eye on the pitch. His return meant Aaron Ramsey was the one to miss out who some might say unluckily so. But whatever impressions he might have made with his passing, positionally Ramsey is not as advanced as Arteta. That was shown against Liverpool where, despite completing more than 100 passes in successive league games (Arteta made 105 out of 116 against Stoke) he was a bit late in sensing the danger. That could be shown by his positioning when the two goals were scored. For Suarez’s goal, the ball took an unfortunate nick off him as he rushed back to help out when Thomas Vermalen mis-kicked the cross. And when Henderson broke through, his slide tackle was a bit unnecessary as Arsenal had men around the Liverpool midfielder, but felt he had to because of the desperateness of the situation. (His energy, however, brings an interesting dynamic and might even replicate Mathieu Flamini in importance in time).

What Ramsey might have going for him ahead of Arteta is his passing range and what I liked about him in that role is that he collects the ball in between the centre-backs, forcing them to spread wide. This makes it harder for opponents to press Arsenal. (When Arteta plays, he tends to push up when Arsenal have it at the back and that puts more onus on the centre-backs, especially Per Mertesacker who the opponents want to have the ball). What Arsenal did well, however, against Stoke with Arteta and Diaby, was that both midfielders alternated dropping deep for possession so whatever plans Stoke had getting tight to them on the ball, was made more difficult.

Arteta can also be criticised for being a bit too passive with his passing which is a bit unfair because he made the most final third passes yesterday. Indeed, Arsenal’s style, which is about rebounding quick one-touch passes in the final third like a puck between hockey sticks, gives the impression that it should always be fast and forward moving. What Arteta probably understands is that it’s not always possible and sometimes, moving the ball back and across is equally as effective in creating space.

5. Giroud needs to be more greedy

Might Arsenal rue not bringing in another striker in the transfer window? That’s the impression Olivier Giroud gave at times, especially when he incomprehensibly headed across goal from a corner-kick when he should have tried to score. His touch was graceful at times, dropping deep to link up play or acting as the pivot for the midfielders to play around. But he lacks the goal-scoring instinct or the explosive moment that could make something out of nothing for Arsenal. Alas, Podolski’s goal probably postponed such tedious discussions of needing another striker but to avoid it in the future, Giroud might need to add a greedy streak to his game.

6. Theo Walcott continues to make an impact on the game on a stunning level

That’s it. Granted, his direct contribution to the result was winning a free-kick but he was brilliant throughout on the right of the attack, which might actually be his best position. Nevertheless, the key is seemingly to let him play to his ego, let him take free-kicks and corners however wild they might be. Thierry Henry did the same thing at the start.

7. Sagna’s lack of form exaggerated

His form has come into question recently but Wenger remains forever grateful to Giles Grimandi for bringing Bacary Sagna to his attentions. He can do everything and as such, at 29 years old, Arsenal would be foolish to not offer Sagna a final, big contract. A downturn in performance is probably just a blip – just ask Patrice Evra what they were saying about him this time last season. But Carl Jenkinson must be pushing Sagna close, especially in these types of matches where opponents sit deep and his crossing can come to the fore. But Sagna brings height and tactical understanding, especially when Walcott is granted the freedom that he has been given recently. As such, Sagna’s lack of form might be a little exaggerated: his role in the side has been adjusted slightly recently. Even so, he’s still a very important player to Arsenal.

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 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.

Wing-wizards prove the difference for Arsenal against Blackburn Rovers

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal-v-Blackbrun

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

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

Alex Song passes

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

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.

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.