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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Jack Wilshere struggles as Arsenal’s attack falters against Everton

So it is then an unlikely source, César Azpilicueta, we refer to touch on what is at heart, the story of Arsenal’s season. In an interview with Sid Lowe for the Guardian the defender said that “a team is constructed with time and automatismos, habits, mechanisms” so as such, progress will occur gradually. That is surely the case with Arsenal.

Of course, there’s the other side of teambuilding which Chelsea in the past certainly have done and that is to buy “special players”; those players who lessen the adjustment period. Arsenal’s youngsters will soon get to that level but considering the signings made in the summer and the relative age of the squad, that is what it is: a new team. Against Everton on Wednesday evening, we saw those habits and patterns still struggling to form into one collective identity.

In the first-half of the 0-0 draw, Everton harassed Arsenal on the ball and marked them tightly to ensure that they never got into their usual passing rhythm. Arsenal stuttered and failed to get away. By the same token, Everton didn’t really threaten either – more on that later – and by the half-time whistle, both sides were separated by only one pass. In the second-half though, Everton relaxed and allowed Arsenal onto them in the hope of profiting from the gaps on the counter-attack, but held firm.

Arsenal looked disjointed, held together by one outstanding individual – Santi Cazorla – but in the end, creativity was stifled as they managed only 11 shots. And although Everton mustered only one more shot, it was at the back, strangely to say of them, that Arsenal looked more of a unit. Of course, this only confirms what Azpilicueta said at the start: that it’s easier to coach synchronicity at the back. Going forward, instinct and understanding cannot be taught; it’s developed over time. When Arsene Wenger committed his five Brits to the club – and later added Theo Walcott too – this is what he had to say: “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.”

Tactics and formations only go some way to addressing the nuances of balance and understanding. So as such, it might be better, after watching the draw with Everton, that Arsenal adjust their 4-2-3-1 to make it closer to a 4-3-3 because patently, Jack Wilshere is having a bit of trouble at the tip of the midfield. Of course, he’s still a bit rusty having just returned to the side from injury and he has too much attacking potential to not use him from the start. But Wilshere’s movement to get on the ball in the two sixty minutes he has played so far has left a lot to be desired.

Often against Everton, he dropped deep to try and escape his markers. And often, he didn’t receive the ball from the defence because there was no need. Mikel Arteta was there. And in any case, Laurent Koscielny is so good on the ball that what he needs is somebody forward to hit to. In contrast, Aaron Ramsey’s running was more intelligent, bursting forward into spaces behind the Everton midfield – where Jack Wilshere might have been – or moving wide to offer support. Other times, Santi Cazorla would drift into the attacking midfield position because Jack Wilshere wasn’t there. Indeed, Cazorla and Ramsey combined for the best chance in the first-half by creating an overload on the right before Ramsey whipped a cross into the penalty area which Olivier Giroud contrived to miss.

Wilshere’s inability to make an impact is shown by the places where he received the ball, often furrowing for possession deep to try and influence. Ramsey, perhaps due to the benefit of starting deep, often made intelligent runs to evade Everton’s midfield and had a fairly impressive game.

This conundrum, however, is nothing new to Wenger, Cesc Fabregas initially had trouble adjusting to picking up the ball with his back to goal. Wilshere similarly likes to collect the ball with his body to the goal so he can drive at the defence. When Wilshere got the opportunity to do that against Everton, it was because Arsenal had successfully penned The Toffees back in their own half.

Given that Wilshere has only just returned from injury, it was a surprise nevertheless, that he started given Tomas Rosicky recent form in that position. If Rosicky as well wasn’t quite fit, Santi Cazorla is the type of player who can make Arsenal tiki-taka from attacking midfield. But Arsene Wenger understandably didn’t want to upset the balance of his team and fielding Cazorla in a roaming role on the left allows him to field another creative midfielder. However, given the relative newness of the team, perhaps it’s not such a problem for Arsenal to depend on Cazorla for this moment because he’s just that good. (And indeed it’s arguable, without the right balance, Cazorla suffers in the wide role because he’s denied the freedom to roam laterally in the final third. In any case, he still does although it’s not without its risks).

At the end of the season, Arsenal’s position in the Premier League table will be the barometer which people will judge whether the team has made progress or not. But it doesn’t tell you the whole story.

2011/12: Arsenal Season Review

At 34 minutes, it seemed like the balance of power had indubitably shifted towards the white of North London. 34 minutes later, it appeared as if it had never moved. That’s how quickly Arsenal’s season had changed because if they had lost to Tottenham Hotspur – and they were already trailing 2-0 – they would have been an unassailable 13 points behind. But somehow, and dumped out of two cup competitions beforehand, they summoned extraordinary resources to not only comeback and win 5-2, but to claw back the deficit in the league table.

It many ways it was the defining match of the season – certainly, it was the Emirates Stadium’s most “signature moment” since it opened in 2006 – because it displayed the best and worst of Arsenal – their frailties and their strengths – in 90 exhilarating minutes. To be fair, there have been a lot of those matches which is why this has been such a frustrating season. Yet, for all of Arsenal’s supposed deficiencies, they find themselves in a better position than last season. Looking forward to next season and there’s a different sense of optimism and that might be down to the “panic-buys” that Arsène Wenger made last summer. Because with it, it imbued a mental strength that was once lacking and if Arsenal can make the necessary technical additions, they can challenge for trophies next campaign.

And that might be the biggest regret for Wenger because his team haven’t been able to exert their style on opponents as they have in the past. Wenger begrudgingly admits that that the team is a “little bit less good than last year with possession of the ball” and while talk of “philosophy” implicitly imbues it with a kind of moral superiority that tends to irritate, but in the case of Arsenal and Wenger, it’s everything. He ended the season with Tomáš Rosický orchestrating Arsenal attacks and tellingly, he opted for the fleet-footed artisan he borrowed from Chelsea, Yossi Benayoun, on the left,  putting an end to the mercurial three-striker tactic that he led with.

As per usual, it’s not just in attack where Arsenal have been unable to find the right balance because for the fourth season running, the defence has increased the number of goals it has conceded. But in this case, it’s not easy to recommend solutions because Arsenal are just inherently too complicated. Their rapid and intense brand of football is resource-heavy thus creating undue strain at the back. Wojciech Szczęsny has been criticised in the recent run for his save percentage, 64% (the fourth lowest in the Premier League – average 69%), but it’s down to the quality of chances Arsenal allow teams (more space, less men back, counter-attacks) thus the probability of scoring is higher. It’s evident, then, that Arsenal could improve on their organisation at the back although it’s not just a matter of the back four; the whole team is culpable. The two goals Arsenal conceded on the last day to West Bromwich Albion displayed the route of their problems as failure to press up the pitch allowed their opponents to play it from the back early and exploited spaces behind. The back-four attempted to push up and squeeze the space but the lack of pressing ultimately undid Arsenal. Put simply, you cannot play a high defensive line without closing down because it invites the opposition to make passes through the backline.

This season has seen Wenger increasingly delegate defensive responsibilities to Pat Rice. Earlier this campaign that was a necessity as Arsenal essentially required new recruits such as Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos to adjust quickly but one wonders whether the compartmentalisation had some effect on the cohesion of the team. Certainly, by separating the defenders and the attackers in training meant less time to practice moving up and down the pitch together but that would surely be picking at bones. Arsenal did it in their Champions League run of 2005/06 when Martin Keown was given hands-on access to improve the defence. Put simply, the strategy of relaxed pressing from the front has been all wrong. Last season, Jack Wilshere and Alex Song where able to set platform for Arsenal to press together and they were backed up by the Dutch system of “through-marking” to retain a shape. This season, there has been less structure although they began to get it right when they went on a good run towards the end of the season and especially in the 1-0 win over Manchester City where each midfielder was designated a man.

However, there are plenty of positives to take from the season too although you can’t help but not avoid the caveats. Robin van Persie has delivered on a virtuoso season, scoring 37 goals in 48 appearances although the next highest scorer behind him was Theo Walcott with 11. The winger himself has had a better season than given credit for and van Persie has taken it on himself to acknowledge that impact by the measure of his assists. Alex Song too, who has come to the fore creatively, especially when Arsenal were deprived of any first-choice full-backs and everything had to come through the middle. Backed up he has been by the astute Mikel Arteta who has in a sense, liberated him. In defence, Laurent Koscielny established himself as one the Premier League’s finest centre-backs despite the chaos that often surrounds him while Rosický has finally found the form he seemed to have lost five years ago.

With Arsenal, the same caveats always apply but in this season, they have become masters of the unexpected. And as such, there is always cause for optimism for 2012/13. “My target is to get back to that level (The Invincibles side of 2003/04),” says Arsène Wenger. “I feel we are not far from coming back to fight for the championship, and let’s hope we can show that next season.”

Six points on 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.

Arsenal disjointed after Jack Wilshere reshuffle

Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland

The joys of Arsenal this season have been seeing Arséne Wenger construct, out of a young, exuberant and somewhat fragile group of players, a dynamic and highly-integrated passing and pressing machine that reached it’s apex in the 2-1 win over Barcelona. The frustrations, have largely come when that unit becomes disintegrated – mainly due to injuries – and it exposes slight structural inefficiencies thus hampering fluency and every so often, throwing up a momentary lapse of concentration that threatens to throw away the game. So, perhaps it was always inevitable, that Arsenal, without four of its key men this season, would make hard weather of an admittedly tricky meeting with Sunderland.

Much of the post-match moans and groans were about the offside and penalty decisions that weren’t given and while it’s true they may have been decisive, The Gunners should not discount the pattern of play that happened before them. Chances were missed although perhaps not of the quality seen in previous matches as creativity and fluency suffered a hit. It seems, with the multitude of chances the side creates, the preciousness of a single chance is somewhat taken for granted. A shot on target is seemingly good enough for Arsenal to reaffirm its status as beautiful martyrs.

How the adjustment of Jack Wilshere’s role affected Arsenal’s dynamics

Wenger’s selection was as expected and arguably as strong as he could have picked although the inclusion of Denilson, who is woefully out of form, forever irks some Gooners and in this match, he failed to disprove those dissenters. His passing was as ever tidy but it looked unthreatening and comatose against the carefree nature of the game. Both sides traded 4-2-3-1 with 4-2-3-1 as Sunderland looked to man-mark Arsenal whenever it had possession and as a result, the home-side was never allowed any real fluency.

Arsenal looked disjointed from the off and a lot seemed to boil down to one significant adjustment; that of Jack Wilshere moving from his nominal double-pivot role to one behind the striker. He has become so crucial to the team’s dynamics this season as one of the two deeper midfielders that the absence of him from the position was instantly telling. The impact this had on the team was threefold:

(i)                  Passing;

(ii)                Pressing (of which affects structure and distances);

(iii)               Positioning.

First off, a word on Sunderland’s start before we expand on the above bullet points, which initially caused some problems to Arsenal’s defence. Steve Bruce opted for a formation which matched up to The Gunners so his side could press better but it came as some surprise as to where he deployed his men. Sulley Muntari and Jordan Henderson screened the back-four while it was Kieran Richardson, usually their left-back who started as the highest midfielder. He was flanked by Steed Malbranque on the left and Stéphane Sessegnon on the right and the amorphous selection started brightly for the Black Cats.

Arséne Wenger usually pushes his two central midfielders forward at the beginning of the game, in order to negate the opposition pressing through the middle but the tactic proceeded to give those versatile players a bit of room. Arsenal visibly needed a dynamic player to get the ball out of the back but Abou Diaby tends to dwell on the ball and Denilson can often pass too lateral and as a result the ball was not recycled as effectively as it could have been. Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou were therefore given much responsibility to bring the ball out of the defence and often strode with the ball into the opponents half in order to advance the play.

Having said that, Denilson’s sheer desire to keep the ball moving, whether penetrative or not, when he did get the ball higher up the pitch was not such a bad idea. With passes being hit astray, he continued to play the ball to feet, hoping to suck the opposition out of position with his movement. In this instance it didn’t really work because Sunderland defended solidly and kept tight to Arsenal’s midfielders, particularly starving Wilshere of space to influence, and the side also lacked runners getting beyond. Tomas Rosicky’s ineffectiveness in the League Cup Final ultimately cost him a place in the starting line-up but in recent games, he has shown a greater willingness to break forward, doing so against Birmingham City and creating the first goal in 5-0 rout of Leyton Orient.

Arsenal’s pressing also suffered although not to the extent of which was seen against Birmingham as Sunderland naturally dropped back because they were satisfied with the draw while Birmingham in the final was forced to go for the win. Jack Wilshere, who has been an exemplar exponent of Wenger’s tactic of through-marking in the press, looked unsure of who to stick tight too as he was up against two holding midfielders. Through-marking requires each player behind the ball to stick tight to their opposing players to therefore eliminate the easy pass out but there wasn’t something right with the distances between each Arsenal player (See Figure 2). Denilson and Diaby were often too separated from each other when Arsenal didn’t have the ball. Wenger pointed to Diaby’s lack of sharpness in his positional play against Orient and that was on display here. He was given the covering role of Song in the double-pivot but was attracted to the play towards the right. It was by far not a bad performance; however, he failed to provide the drive he usually brings to the team. The absence of Fabregas shifted more responsibility to Nasri and Wilshere to create but the game also highlighted the importance of other absentees. Van Persie has perfectly balanced the art of the striker while Song provides the protection and power to complement Arsenal’s intricacy and Theo Walcott helps create space centrally by stretching the play. Nasri assumed the right sided role very well but was always relied upon to cut inside and help Arsenal create.

avergae-touch

Arsenal’s disjointedness is shown against Sunderland in comparison with their average touch positions for the whole season. In Figure 1, Wilshere and Song typically make a more synchronised partnership, showing the importance of the double pivot to the team’s dynamics. In Figure 2, Denilson is too central – his style which is usually playing as the deepest midfielder in a 4-3-3 – while Diaby has pushed to far forward. The distances between the pair are too large and it shows how the roles have been switched. Normally, it is the left-sided midfielder, Wilshere, who circulates possession but this time it was Denilson but he was often too deep. Diaby, who should have assumed the covering role of Alex Song, was too attracted to play on the right.

The Nicklas Bendtner and Marouanne Chamakh rivalry goes on

Had Nicklas Bendtner got on to the end of Gael Clichy’s cross early in the first-half, the Dane would have been a dead cert to start against Barcelona. But as it is, it still leaves us with unanswered questions on who should start in the big match. Should the main role of the striker be to get the best out of the front four or score goals? Everything is relative of course, but Bendtner could have been accused of being too individualistic at times, drifting to the left and looking to get the ball to his feet at all times.

In the second-half, Marouanne Chamakh entered the fray and with Bendtner pushed to the right, Arsenal looked more dynamic. Bendtner was able to tuck in behind the Moroccan and provided Arsenal with more numbers in the box although it should not be discounted, the drive Wilshere provided with the substitution. Picking the ball up from deeper, he has space to run with the ball forward; something which he was denied in the first-half although you could see why Wenger placed him in the attacking midfield slot; Wilshere played some wonderful passes that on another day, may have found a man. Football is a game of margins as Bendtner will have found out but there is a chance he will start along with Chamakh at Camp Nou.

Arsenal’s system finds no space for holding midfielders

Some plans fall into place as if part of a grand design. Others just happen by accident. For Arsène Wenger, there is something prophetic about the way the season has panned out thus far. Less clairvoyant is his prediction that Arsenal would meet FC Barcelona in the Champions League but he is being proved right when he says, in his own, that his team will be able to “beat, in a comfortable way, all the other teams” when they reach the age of 23/24 years old. When Cesc Fàbregas scored the third goal in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Ipswich Town to send Arsenal to the League Cup final, it was almost a symbolic vindication of Wenger’s youth policy as the talisman and leader of a generation. Jack Wilshere had the chance to add another layer of symbolic meaning two minutes later as the first real “home-grown” star to emerge from the policy but fluffed his lines in a one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

That Wilshere took part in the game is not so extraordinary given that Wenger usually bloods his youngsters in the competition but the fact that he has become such an essential part of the team’s dynamics in the position he is playing now, that he will certainly start against Barcelona in the defining game of the season, whether for or against tactical sensibilities.

Before the start of the season, Jack Wilshere looked as if he may go out on loan but luck – bad luck in normal circumstances – plumped him at the heart of midfield. He was the mainstay during pre-season as injuries, and the need for recuperation for those involved in 2010’s World Cup, stripped him of his main contenders for the slot and hr has remained there ever since. His partnership with Alex Song has flourished and together they have created an understanding akin to Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar. Indeed, the two look like the typical odd couple pairing; one is a ball player, the other is a ball winner; one is small and the other one is big. But there is also something very atypical about the way they function which expunges the myth that the doble pivote in a 4-2-3-1, must compromise of a ball winner and a deep-lying playmaker. (Or more simply teams must play at least one holding midfielder).

In Arsenal’s system neither midfielder is the holding midfielder. That may seem contradictory given Wenger’s comments earlier this season when he said that Song is the “holding midfielder” and Wilshere is “more box-to-box” but it also shows the level of autonomy the manager grants his players. Over the course of the season, Wenger has let the process of natural assimilation dictate the nuances of the system and the understanding the pair have now is all the more impressive given that their first match together was in the third league game of the season against Blackburn Rovers. The process has probably bear fruit quicker than it may have at other clubs because the players are trained one way; the “Arsenal way,” as Wilshere calls it.

Of course, in Arsenal’s system, Alex Song is stronger defensively so his tendencies to help out in defence is greater but he spends just as much time going forward as does Wilshere stay back. Both move together in unison and together, they have created a natural understanding with each other that goes beyond the mere description of their roles.  “We have no deep-lying midfielders in our midfield,” said Wenger, before adding in regards to Jack Wilshere. “But he can play in any position because he is tactically intelligent. He can defend [and] he can attack, he’s a midfielder. For me a midfielder is not exclusively one position. He is a guy who defends when the team does not have the ball and attacks when we have the ball.”

The other point of importance is the need for Arsenal to have all-rounders in the team. This allows The Gunners to play with more fluidity and a higher tempo, enabling Arsenal to retain their thrilling passing from back to front when, elsewhere in a 4-2-3-1, not having the players of a certain mobility and technical ability, may make the formation look clunky. Indeed, Arsenal’s explosive start against Newcastle, where they took a 4-0 lead in thirty minutes saw both Wilshere and Abou Diaby at the edge of their opposition’s penalty area in the build up to the third goal. (Ironically in that game, the virtues of the holding midfielder was evident when Arsenal went down to ten men but there was not much else Wenger could have done; he had no Song or Denilson on the bench due to injuries therefore dropping Fàbregas back).

In the defensive phase it is just as important because Arsenal defend as a unit more than ever now. The team press high up the pitch and that means the back four must also push up to remain compact. Earlier in the season, Arsenal failed to get this part of their game correct thus leading to some of their inconsistencies but when it goes right; it can be devastating as Chelsea will attest. “We were concentrating on the defensive of the game today. Everyone pressed. It was so good to see,” said Walcott after the 3-1 win over Chelsea. ”Not just the starters, but the players who came on as well. They pressed and we didn’t give Chelsea space at all. We did that throughout the 90 minutes. I think everything went well for us. We made Chelsea look average at times. We played some great football and not just the pressing. It was fantastic to see.”

Arsenal’s pressing has become more strategic. It is perhaps not as athletic as it was before, instead applying a mixture of the Dutch principles of “through-marking” (where player looking to eliminate all passing options by sticking tight to their opponents) and zonal marking. Wenger wants his team to play in the opponents half of the pitch both in an attacking sense and as a means of defence by suffocating their opponents. “The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

a-v-wigan

<Figure 1> Arsenal’s pressing this season is more focused on stopping the pass through midfield.Against Chelsea, Arsenal did that expertly. They let the centre-backs have possession of the ball but ensured it was difficult to build out play forward. John Obi Mikel was pressed tight in the first-half and when he was taken off in the following half, Arsenal gained their two goals by intercepting Michael Essien. It was a tactical blunder by Chelsea who, by stripping themselves of the best ball circulator, made them susceptible to the press. Against Manchester City, they were less intense but similar made it difficult for them to play the ball out. With the emphasis on the front four to press up the pitch, the two central midfielders have a great responsibility in keeping the structure of the side together.

In that respects, then, there are striking similarities with Arsenal and Arrigo Sacchi’s, highly-integrated and highly attacking Milan side between 1987 and 1991. Both managers stress the importance of “universality;” both acknowledge the significance of pressing to get the most out of the side and both have a unbending belief in playing football in a “pro-active” manner.

Sacchi says, in Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, that “pressing is not about running…..It is about controlling space. I wanted to make my players feel strong and my opponents feel weak. If we let our opponents play in a way they were accustomed to, they would grow in confidence. But if we stopped them, it would hurt their confidence. That was the key: that out pressing was psychological as much as physical. Our pressing was collective.” Wenger’s purposeful desire to play in his opponents half, despite the fact that it may leave the team open, is as much a psychological ploy as it is tactical as he indicates.

Of course, it is perhaps even a moot point that Sacchi and Wenger’s thinkings are similar. Sacchi’s ideologies come from the same bloodline as Dutch Total Football, the archetype Wenger cites as his greatest influence and that South American football sees it as the last, great tactical innovation, it is perhaps inevitable they carry the same traits. Indeed, those principles common with the two coaches are in some way interpreted by elite clubs but they perhaps would not so rigidly adhere to Sacchi’s ideologies because they are inherently too dogmatic. Sacchi’s main idea was that every player must play an equal part in a highly systematised layout – but as directed by the manager. That meant having players in all areas of the pitch who can deliver key passes (for him, everyone was the playmaker) and then able to press and defend to his instructions (i.e. compact, organised and moving as a unit – a difference of twenty-five metres from the last defender to the centre-forward was a must to be maintained). Managers may prefer to take small parts of his philosophies because essentially, it’s those parts that make modern (attacking) football. Nevertheless, now is the cult of the coach and more and more, players are expecting to have more obligations than liberties while Wenger prefers expressionism and indeed, it’s easy to think how clunky his system may look if Wilshere’s indulgences were reigned. (Or even, if Song had a higher ratio split in defending rather than the 50:50 it is now).

And that itself is another important point. Sacchi’s successor at Milan, Fabio Capello, was ultimately more successful than him and did it in a way that Sacchi would consider an antithesis of his approach. Capello’s Milan was defensive and was more about individuals and specialists than the team as one. With Marcelo Desailly holding, it allowed the attacking players to play with more margin of error. Indeed, in Arsenal’s one season with Flamini as the holding midfielder or even Gilberto, in the run to the Champions League final of 2006, Arsenal came as close to they have ever come with a designated holder. In 2008/09, it must be noted that trying both Denilson and Fabregas in a shared role was a disaster and it wasn’t until Wenger changed it all in the second half of the season and played a functional 4-2-3-1, in Arsenal standards anyway, did they improve massively. Just as Adam Smith’s economic theory,  the division of labour, indicates that by specialising parts, a processes can be more effective, a team may be more effective should players be encouraged to make the most of their specific talents.

But it perhaps isn’t an option currently for this Arsenal side to designate a holder. It is noticeable just how important the two in the middle are in creating a platform for the team’s structure and the way they move left and right, back and forth together to cover spaces is, a bit, reminiscent of Sacchi’s Milan. Certainly the same solutions are not available for Arsenal that Milan had to remain compact. The liberalisation of the offside law means despite all the efforts they try to push up, it still poses the danger that teams may get behind with one long ball. And even if Denilson, does try to stay back on his own, as he does when Arsenal attack, it may paradoxically create a larger gap in between midfield and attack.

But lets not also forget the impact Cesc Fabregas has had on the balance on the team coinciding in an upturn of form since the 1-0 defeat to Manchester United or the tracking back of the wide players and Robin van Persie’s return. With Wenger’s desire to push up the pitch early on, it strips, sometimes, Arsenal of a ball circulator so with Fabregas dropping back to pick up the ball makes him harder to mark and the two central midfielders to push up. The wide men are also tracking back more fastidiously, meaning the amount of ground Wilshere and Song may have had to cover before, is decreased. And of course, attack and defence is all relative and van Persie’s ability to bring others in the game is perhaps been the most impressive of the Premiership.

Arsenal’s scheme is about working together, encouraging combinations and harnessing the process that occurs naturally amongst a group of intelligent players who play with each other long enough and appreciate each other’s company. As the structuralist architect, Aldo van Eyck once wrote; “All systems should be familiarised, one with the other, in such a way that their combined impact and interaction can be appreciated as a single complex system.” The partnership of Jack Wilshere and Alex Song helps achieves just that.

A timeline of holding midfielders lost

January 31, 2010: “We have to focus on delivering a completely different performance [against Chelsea on Sunday] because today we were never close in our marking and you do not win big games like that. We gave them too much room everywhere and afterwards Rooney takes advantage of it. We conceded two goals which were ‘corner for us, goal for them’ – two goals, the second and third. I believe it was much more with our positioning and the intelligence of our positioning that we were wrong.” Arsene Wenger after Arsenal’s 3-1 defeat to Manchester United in the league acknowledging the need to improve marking.

April 5, 2010: “We know that when we don’t have the ball you need everyone on board, especially against Barcelona and on a pitch like the Nou Camp. We have to make the pitch smaller and everybody must work hard to win the ball back. That’s where we failed in the first game last week, especially in the first half and of course the heart of the battle will be won in midfield.” Wenger on the Barcelona masterclass and the importance of structure without the ball. Arsenal played with a 4-1-4-1 and over the course of the two legs were destroyed because of the room they gave to the Catalan club.

June 8, 2010: “What happens in football is that there are trends. People see a [Claude] Makelele and say – you need a holding midfield player. Well, do you? Man Utd won the European Cup with [Michael] Carrick and [Paul] Scholes as central midfield players. All of a sudden Makelele defines the Makelele role and everyone says you’ve got to have a Makelele. What you need is good players who recognise danger. The idea that you need a natural holding midfielder – I don’t go along with that.” Gary Neville on holding midfielders.

July 2010 edition of Arsenal magazine: “Tactically, the World Cup was very, very one-sided. All teams played five men in the midfield and that was their priority.” Wenger on the importance of defending as a team and how better to improve his side’s attack/defence split.

August 1, 2010: “A little bit because at the start of the season I was not convinced that Wilshere and Frimpong could be central midfielders, defensively. There is a little bit more competition than we expected there to be. We were considering even maybe going on the market for a midfielder. We will not do that now.” Wenger on whether the Wilshere and Frimpong have changed his thinking ahead of the new season.

October 30, 2010: “We kept the structure of our game right, we didn’t do anything stupid, we kept trying to be intelligent and that in the end got us the goal with two minutes to go. He is [adding that to his game] because when you sum up his game today he had three good chances: the goal he scored, the one on his right boot and the header in the first half that touched the bar. He has got the taste to go forward, even if I think a little too much sometimes for a holding midfielder! But that is part of our game as well.”

“Offensively, it works very well. We have to show it works defensively as well. We have many who like to attack, so we have to be intelligent to do the defensive job well because if you want to be efficient you need to defend well in midfield. Wilshere at the moment suits a deeper role and Fabregas a little bit higher. Wilshere can find a good pass through the lines and find Fabregas.”

“Denilson had three good games this week – he played the whole 90 minutes at Manchester City, the whole 90 minutes at Newcastle and he did quite well today because he defended very well at the moment everybody went forward. But Jack can play with Denilson, he can play with Song, I have good potential for rotation and don’t forget we have Diaby who can come back too.”

Wenger first on the changing role of Song, the contributions of Fabregas and Wilshere and finally Denilson. After the 1-0 win over West Ham United.

November 03, 2010: “He is not completely holding, he is in between. He is a box to box player more than a holding midfielder. And in fairness he can play as well behind the striker, he can penetrate, he has a good burst. Give him time, let him play and I know that is not easy for you, and it’s not your greatest strength.” Wenger after Wilshere dismantles Shakhtar Donetsk with a complete all-round performance.

December 5, 2010: “The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.” How Wenger has changed his system to help make and break down space. After the 2-1 win over Fulham.

December 27, 2010: “We were concentrating on the defensive of the game today. Everyone pressed. It was so good to see. Not just the starters, but the players who came on as well. They pressed and we didn’t give Chelsea space at all. We did that throughout the 90 minutes. I think everything went well for us. We made Chelsea look average at times. We played some great football and not just the pressing. It was fantastic to see.” Walcott after the 3-1 win over Chelsea.

28 January, 2011: “In our midfield he plays everywhere. We have no deep-lying midfielders in our midfield, but he can play in any position because he is tactically intelligent. He can defend [and] he can attack, he’s a midfielder. For me a midfielder is not exclusively one position. He is a guy who defends when the team does not have the ball and attacks when we have the ball.” Wenger commenting after Wilshere was tipped by Capello to play as a holding midfielder.

February 11, 2011: “He can play in any position. He can play everywhere on the football pitch because he’s a good football player.” Wenger after Wilshere’s full debut.