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.

Yossi Benayoun: The loan diamond who came from Dimona

On-loan players are often quicker to win the hearts of fans than permanent signings. They have to. Time is at a premium to make an impact and like visits by long-distance, gift bearing relatives, you have to make the most of it. Fans often endear to their nuances and foibles quicker too; Yossi Benayoun was taken aback, as if it was the first time anyone has noticed, when asked about the conditioner he uses to maintain his perfectly groomed hair.

Ah, Benayoun. Speaking of foibles, I somewhat harshly likened him to Edvard Munch’s The Scream on Twitter but followers would also know just how much I rate the guy. Of course, I had little to back that up with  – he had rarely played for one-and-a-half seasons – but he was just made for Arsenal. His glide on the ball, his skinny frame that revealed nothing but indicated so much and his penchant for the big games. Yet, despite that, he rarely figured for the first part of the season. Unlike loan-signings, he was forgotten. This is what I wrote about him in December:

However, The Gunners do have someone to call on with capability to give Arsenal’s play a plurality in Yossi Benayoun; a fleet-footed schemer with an art deco finish but Wenger’s adamant his three striker tactic can be deadly and as such, Benayoun misses out. (Given the right creativity – another reason why Benayoun must play more often – and penchant to keep the ball).

But unfathomably, he’s forced his way into the team and his impact might even remain beyond next season. Not because he’s likely to stay – Benayoun knows he won’t get many games at a big club again despite his ability – paradoxly, a loan is probably the best chance to appreciate his talents. But because he gives Arsenal balance due to his artistry and next season, Wenger will want to replicate it. Playing on the left of the attacks, he’s put an end to the “three striker system” in big games at least. Because using someone like Benayoun out wide, Arsenal can keep the ball better and put pressure on teams higher up the pitch. It also synchronises better with their high-line and quick passing tempo.

The obvious answer here is that Arsenal, next season, will use their strength-in-depth and pick and choose styles depending on their opponents. But they won’t have a Benayoun – a Plan A in big matches, and a Plan B in smaller games. Aaron Ramsey is not the long-term solution on the wings and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is still developing although he looks the best option. New signings might put a welcome spanner in the works – Lukas Podolski is a give-and-go winger and has the added advantage that Marouane Chamakh hasn’t of versatility that means he will always be involved.

Yossi Benayoun looks to be getting the credit he finally deserves and not just as essential as a coat-hanger in the dressing room. Okay, he’s only started five times in the Premier League but his affect is arguably far larger – that he’s impacted on the strategy and, laid the foundations for Arsenal to build on next season.

Anyway, here’s my piece on the effect Benayoun has had tactically for Arsenal Insider. Peace.

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.”

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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.”

Five points on Arsenal 1-2 Manchester United

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The best play of the encounter was a defensive tackle but it’d go almost untalked about after the melodrama which preceded Manchester United’s equaliser. Just after he had created the equaliser, the lively Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was taken off and replaced by Andrey Arshavin. Cue the Emirates crowd to collectively spit out their dummies and after Danny Welbeck had won the game for Manchester United, the substitution took symbolic value as the Arsenal team was jeered off at the end. However, that probably wasn’t the most pivotal substitution as almost straight after, Sir Alex Ferguson reacted and sent on Park Ji-Sung to replace Rafael. Antonio Valencia shifted to right-back and his driving run was more difficult to deal with with more space. The Ecuadorian squeezed into the box, played a one-two before finding Welbeck to score the winner.

It’s not the first time Arsenal have conceded so quick after they had regained a foot-hold in the match; they did it only last week against Swansea City and the way The Gunners switched off momentarily was reminiscent of the defeat to Tottenham. The second-goal came from a quickly taken free-kick and Arsenal never quite organised themselves to deal with the overload United created on the left for the opener. Arsenal’s goal, though, was a sweeping move, perhaps highlighting just how Arsenal have changed and it all originated from a tackle. Laurent Koscielny’s brash certainty that he would return with the ball when others would have panicked one-on-one in the box with Rafael was outstanding; his tackle even better without losing balance and he capped it off by having the composure to find Tomas Rosicky. He played it to Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chamberlain reversed passed to Robin van Persie and the Dutchman squeezed in at the far post. It was the classic break-away goal, from back to front in 16 seconds and actually originated from a counter of United’s own. Here are some observations from the game.

1. United profit from left-side bias

Arsenal actually started the better side and for twenty minutes, dominated possession. The rotation in the midfield was better than it had been in recent games with Rosicky checking his forward runs to stay disciplined to the left side of Alex Song (as Mikel Arteta might have done). It seemed part of this decision, as it is not Rosicky’s game to stay back, stemmed from Arsène Wenger’s preoccupation of not allowing Manchester United any space out wide. It worked for a while although more due to Arsenal’s keeping of the ball. But, they dropped off halfway through the half and United started to work space out wide. In particular, with Antonio Valencia stretching the pitch on the right, it opened up play on the left. Luis Nani threatened while Patrice Evra always provided good support but it was with Ryan Giggs helping out did United ultimately cause damage. Arsenal eventually stumbled on Theo Walcott to defend their right hand-side but with his goalscoring agenda and Arsenal themselves biased slightly to their left, United were able to overload that side for their first goal.

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2. What do the central midfielders do?

The absence of full-backs to provide support and the three striker system puts the central midfielders in a precarious position. Is their duty primarily to create or to hold position? Of course, over the course of the game, it flits in-and-out but Arsenal looked cautious with what they did in the first while United looked confident and executed their functions quicker in comparison. In the second-half, they didn’t seem so inhibited by a contrast of instructions and pushed higher up the pitch as they naturally prefer.

One issue this season has been the split of roles between midfield and attack. Clearly, Wenger’s tactic is to leave dynamism part more to the front three – and in a sense the goalscoring too – while the midfield plays a supporting role. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s involvement in the build up from the left-hand side helped bridge that gap between attack and midfield as it is something two “natural” wingers do not give. And while Aaron Ramsey also provides a double function, Jack Wilshere’s drive in the centre has been greatly missed. (Ramsey’s graft has not come without pain; he has been dispossessed 68 times, followed by van Persie at 61 but it shows Ramsey is not necessarily playing as a midfielder but somewhere in between. Only Paris’ Nene has been dispossessed more in the Top 5 leagues in Europe. Via Whoscored.com)

“I agree we are a little bit less good than last year with possession of the ball,” said Wenger in the Daily Mail. “But it’s down to the structure of the team a little bit, because we play this year with two wingers who are real wingers. And, you know, we are as well a bit more vertical than last year and a little less possession [based].  When we played for a long period with Gervinho, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott we were dangerous, basically, always through our wings, but a little less in control possession wise.”

3. Arsenal push up in the second-half

At half-time in the Champions League Quarter Final in 2009/10, Arsenal pushed their defensive line up the pitch 10m to counter Barcelona. The result saw them concede two quick goals in similar fashion but also saw them rally to draw the game. In some ways, it was the same here. The midfield pressed higher, making it more a 4-3-3 (or 4-1-4-1)  than the slanted 4-2-1-3 it was in the first-half, and the back line got tighter to the strikers. As a result, Arsenal squeezed United’s play (although they did leave space behind) and had the better of the opportunities up until their goal. The upshot of this however, was Manchester United looked threatening every time they broke and could have scored with one of the Welbeck chances. Culann Davies (@CWDailyGooner) cites Laurent Koscielny as key to setting the blueprint for Arsenal’s increased intensity and certainly, once they can free Thomas Vermaelen  from left-back, they will have an impetuous centre-back pairing to aid their collective game. As Koscielny stated in the programme: “It also helps our attackers if we win the ball in the opposition half, so we need to work hard in all areas.”

Rosicky slanted his play towards the left in the first half (part of the reason for United’s dominance on the other side), performing a more disciplined role. However, as Arsenal pressed higher, Rosicky was more able to initiate attacks

4. The Ox looks best on the left

It’s not Wenger-like not to attack but his substitution to take of Oxlade-Chamberlain for Arshavin was a bit naive. He felt Arsenal could win the game – which is a fair ambition – but knowing Arsenal’s insecurities, he should have played it more safe. Yossi Benayoun would have given Arsenal more control through possession while still possessing the killer pass option. But also, because he is a popular player amongst the group, would probably have not drawn such a reaction from van Persie.

Van Persie was probably most discontent with the sub because it came in a period in the second-half where his movements were beginning to be understood – van Persie had made some fantastic runs in the first half which were not found. Chamberlain was himself, errant in the first-half while Walcott never got into the game telepathically or technically. But in the second, and playing mainly on the left, Chamberlain was able to get into central areas (a bit Gareth Bale-like if wanting to be sacrilegious) more often. Indeed, as a winger who’s job it is to stretch play, he can’t get involved as much on the right even though he was still very dynamic in the chances he got. Wenger eventually settled on Chamberlain at wide left and he gave Arsenal a balance.

On the other hand, Walcott has seemed to have suffered not being able to get behind. Van Persie is playing closer to a centre-forward’s role this season and this has restricted Walcott to an orthodox role.

Chamberlain’s passing in the first half show him unable to get involved effectively although his running did create two chances. In the second-half, he was able to roam more centrally and created Arsenal’s goal.

5. Arsenal good enough to finish fourth but…

Bemoaning a mass injury crisis is a fair excuse if for one season but to oversee it for two or three years, is poor strategic planning. In regards to the full-back position, Wenger knew before January both Andre Santos and Carl Jenkinson would be out for most of the season therefore a short-term option should have been drafted in. But just as much an oversight might be in the central midfield where two key midfielders, Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere, were set to miss much of the season. Crucially, it’s in a position Arsenal lack; the Arteta role. Tomas Rosicky performed admirably to check his enthusiasms although that invariably drew Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick forward with time on the ball; nevertheless, his passing is always a plus. Indeed, one of the criticisms levelled at Arsène Wenger last season was that he failed to make use of the squad in the final stretch of the season and already this season, there is talk of fatigue. Arteta has been relied upon to stay fit, and amazingly he has, for the bulk of the campaign and he’s proven crucial. Somewhat bafflingly, however, Yossi Benayoun hasn’t been used as often as his talents deserve while Park Chu-Young is actually a better player than his anonymity has made of him. The athleticism of English football, though, has set him back considerably.

The unwillingness to change has shown Arsenal to have a tactical inflexibility although one option, Marouane Chamakh, has always been available as a Plan B on the bench. Indeed, the problem might be the players are too similar rather than a lack of depth and that’s why Wenger’s pining his hopes on injured players returning. Arsenal have the squad to get fourth place but we might not see it.

Five points on Arsenal 3-0 West Bromwich Albion

Arsenal crept out of the negatives for goal difference this season and into the positives for the first time, and for that they can say they have finally moved on from their disastrous start. The victory was more symbolic than being noted for the actual performance which was once again dominant without having to hit second gear. The Gunners added vigour to victory and while Robin van Persie was a major influence in all three of the goals, it was very much a collective endeavour.

West Bromwich Albion, on the other hand, looked a level below and they never got close to giving Arsenal a challenge. They had injuries but credit must go to Arsenal for suffocating the play and then giving themselves the comfort of a two-goal lead at half-time. The rest of the match was elementary as Mikel Arteta wrapped up the win.

1. “In the modern game, the only formation is 9-1”

The most impressive thing about Arsenal’s resurrection is not just how results have improved; it’s the way they have made visible steps to be more solid as a team. On Saturday, with the selections of Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny at centre-back as well as two attacking full-backs, it indicated Arsenal would attack as a team and defend together. In terms of physical make-up, the defence was barely indistinguishable to the attack – Gervinho and Vermaelen could easily mistaken for the wrong positions if you didn’t know who they were – and indeed, Vermaelen popped up with the second goal. Arsène Wenger knew he was going to face a defensive side (although he did expect West Brom to be more potent on the break) so he chose a team that he felt would stand the best chance of breaking them down. His team did and in comfortable fashion too.

2. Where would Arsenal be without van Persie Arteta?

Talks of a one-man team are unfair on an Arsenal side who are improving each week, even if they are reliant on Robin van Persie to finish off the moves. However, it might be fair to say The Gunners can as much owe their revival to the twinkle toe passing of Mikel Arteta as much as van Persie’s goals. Yes, van Persie’s goals are more tangible to the end result but Arsenal have markedly looked a better team since the arrival of Arteta from Everton. The Spaniard has helped bring stability in midfield, recycling possession expertlyto give Arsenal the control they were lacking in the earlier games and he has stoked up an excellent partnership with Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey. It’s argued his passing can often be too passive but in keeping it moving, he’s dragging opponents around to create space and to help sustain the pressure. He’s in the top ten of most passes per game in Europe – the only player in the league. Arteta’s played nearly ninety minutes every match since and he deserves a rest; it’s just as well there’s an international break around the corner….

3. The modern centre-back pairing

Arsène Wenger’s comments on the importance of centre-backs to Arsenal’s attacks before the game, more than just being very insightful, seemed to be a thumbs-up for Koscielny and Vermaelen as the first choice pairing. He officially put down the benching of Per Mertesacker as tactical, opting for mobility but Arsenal’s game relies on nimble movement and unfortunately for Mertesacker, he falls just short of his two team-mates. To be fair, the German has proved surprisingly adroit on the ball and in the games he has played, has had more passes than Koscielny. That may just be down to Arsenal’s bias down the right-hand side (see figure 2) but Wenger can rotate his centre-backs when the circumstances demand it, safe in the knowledge than any of his three can do a good job.

Against West Brom, however, Koscielny and Vermalen showed why they are Arsenal’s best partnership, aiding Arsenal’s possession game with precision passing into the midfield. But most impressive was their acute reading of play which helped squeezed the play in West Brom’s half. They constantly won the wall back quickly, helping to restart attacks as soon as they broke down, something arguably less achievable if Mertesacker had played.

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The urgency Vermaelen instilled in Arsenal’s game is shown by his interceptions which were higher than any other Arsenal player. Two were in the opponents half and his impetousness is infectious.

NB: We didn’t see how Arsenal’s defenders cope when pressed because West Brom weren’t able to close them down up the pitch but it’s important to note Wenger’s tactics when that happens. He usually pushes his midfielders up at the start of the build up to give the centre-backs time and space on the ball. It’s worked to varying success, though; Arsenal do look better when Song and Arteta rotate to drop deep to pick up the ball rather than Song on his own because it makes them harder to mark. Nevertheless, Arsène Wenger has indicated what could be a potential strategy for clubs against them and is taking steps to ensure his team is fully prepared.

“[Traditionally] when you play against a 4-4-2 the two strikers stop your centre-backs so the full-backs get the first ball from the goalkeeper,” said Wenger. “If your full-back gives ball back to the keeper or cannot get out of a tight situation you have to kick the ball forward.

“Against a 4-5-1, the trend now, the two centre-backs become more important as the full-backs are ‘blocks’ and the centre-backs get more of the ball. So the quality of their passing becomes very important.”

4. Another word on Arsenal’s wing-play

It’s a little bit strange to say that the wide forwards have been crucial to Arsenal’s game because, at the same time, they’ve yet to deliver as it’s been hoped. That’s probably down to the nature of the wide player as they generally tend to flit in and out of games because their space is often squeezed. Wenger has tried to keep their involvement going at all times by swapping sides when their impact wanes but we should note the differences of Gervinho and Theo Walcott’s roles. Gervinho is almost expected to be a striker tucked in on the left therefore he’s often left up the pitch so Arsenal can knick a goal on the break (although I feel he’s actually better on the right). Walcott, on the other hand, is given a more orthodox box-to-box winger role with Wenger admitting he’s instructed to do more defensive work. In a sense it’s like the front three at Barcelona; Villa on the left plays more direct and closer to Messi while Pedro hugs the touchline and covers for the right-full back.

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Van Persie has admitted he has had to refine his game due to the increased number of crosses coming his way and against West Brom, The Gunners plundered in 34 crosses. Arsenal’s play was also generally skewed towards the right – the first image showing the passing in the first-half. Overall this season, Arsenal attack from the right 35% of the time compared to 31% from the left but that figure increases to 37% at home, with attacks from the left going down to 29%.

5. West Brom offer limited threat

If there’s one negative from the game, it’s the way Arsenal dropped their intensity levels in the second-half. The lead never looked in doubt but Arsenal could afford to learn from Barcelona by taking the sting off games with their possession. That’s how they defended in the first-half, suffocating the play in West Brom’s half so much so they didn’t concede a shot. In the second-half, however, Arsenal relented and offered West Brom a small peek back into the game – The Baggies were allowed to get runners forward around the box – but their threat was minimal. The lack of a focal point may have affected West Brom’s game but this was Arsenal’s easiest opponent yet.

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West Brom had 10 shots in the game, all in the second-half. In the first-half they had none and you can see by the pass graphic how Arsenal squeezed their passing by not allowing them to penetrate the final third.

NB: A shout out also to the ever improving pair of Carl Jenkinson and Aaron Ramsey, who, due to time constraints, I couldn’t write about. But you can add your thoughts below should you wish.

Gervinho comes into form to fit nicely into Arsène Wenger’s grand plan

Arsenal fans have a lot to look forward too if Gervinho’s first man-of-the-match in the 3-1 win over Stoke City is anything to go by. Daniel Jeandupeux, the man responsible for bringing Gervinho to Ligue 1 at Le Mans, tells Sabotage Times that “if he continues to improve, he could become one of the very best players in the world — like Messi.” It’s certainly a bold statement to make but Gervinho has the capability to be explosive. Fans complaining about a lack of high-profile signings in the summer cannot but be moved to stand in anticipation when Gervinho runs with the ball – he’s the type of player who gets bums off seats. His goal and two assists come at the right time; he’s effectively where he should have been three games ago were he not suspended in his first game at the club. But he’s slowly adjusting and his improvement can help take the growing reliance off Robin van Persie.

Ah, yes, Robin van Persie. As if it needed proving Arsenal are reliant on one man, the Dutchman came off the bench to secure three points for The Gunners. His record in 2011 is extraordinary: the two goals he scored in last weekend against Stoke takes his tally to 25 goals in 26 league games in this calender year. However, the most impressive aspect of this virtuoso performance is the way van Persie has consistently delivered the goals even as Arsenal have implemented a series of tactical and strategic changes in their play.

At the start of 2011, Arsenal were at their best: in fact, I’d go as far as to say the best period of form by any side last season. They played a dynamic and integrated brand of football with multiple avenues of creativity – culminating in the 2-1 win over Barcelona – but it was van Persie’s return from injury, giving an overworked Marouane Chamakh a breather, that really made the system click. But defeat in the Carling Cup final in February severely affected Arsenal’s confidence and they started playing football in a risk-averse manner. Their possession average shot up and the team lost it’s fluidity, a problem also attributable in part to the absence of Cesc Fàbregas, whose play was the basis for the formation then employed. Yet even in this time of turmoil and frustration, Robin van Persie refined his game and kept banging in the goals.

This season Arsenal have had to make further adjustments:  shorn of any one individual (apart, perhaps, from Alex Song) fully comfortable at playing incisive through-passes, the playmaker role that Fábregas once assumed is now shared. It appears, then, that Arsene Wenger expects dynamism to come from the forward three, who are given more license to move around the pitch. It’s taken a while, however, to get going but Gervinho’s all-round display should just be the start. Against Stoke, he spent a lot of his time taking on defenders as well as trying to get into goalscoring areas and indeed, his average touch position show he played higher than the central striker. Arsène Wenger feels if Gervinho can further develop his understanding with his strike partners it will be a crucial part of Arsenal’s game.

“It is very rare when people have that [ability to beat players in the penalty area] because you need to be quick over a very short distance without losing the ball,” Wenger told the Official Arsenal website. “Gervinho has that capability. He has the capability to score and make assists. I would say as well his mobility [is key] – our game is based on that.

His movement is great – he moves well in the final third – and he can pass people there too. We saw that on both occasions against Stoke for Robin’s goals. Other teams are tempted to put the quickest defender on Theo Walcott but Gervinho is very quick as well. We multiply our options speed-wise with him.”

One of the advantages of this type of wing-play is that they are not engaging in the low-percentage crossing game that other wingers typically involve themselves in. Instead they are choosing to keep the ball on the ground, seeking to dribble past their opponents and penetrate the box, or deciding to re-circulate the ball back to the central midfielders and maintain possession. In this the forwards are emulating Barcelona, the team so many have cited as Arsenal’s role model.

The emphasis on wing play has not been without it’s problems however. While Arsenal have looked as threatening from wide as they have ever been under Arsène Wenger, they haven’t been as fluid as previous incarnations. That assessment is supported by the number of occasions Arsenal players have been dispossessed this season. Before the Stoke encounter, Gunners had suffered this fate 197 times, a figure which tops the Premiership – at least we’re number one in something! Then again perhaps this statistic is to be expected – since Arsenal generally dominate possession, they present their opponents with proportionately more opportunities to win the ball back. But the statistic also serves to highlight the increased emphasis Arsenal have placed on the flanks this season and as a result, perhaps they’ve had to play more orthodoxly than Wenger would have liked.

Certainly, that’s the case with Theo Walcott which only helps fuel the calls to convert him back to a striker (although that’s actually another issue altogether) but he’s best on the right. He’s not playing as a typical winger; the aim is to get him in behind as often as possible therefore his effectiveness – or any one of the front three for that matter – it seems, is correlated to the ability of the midfielders – and van Persie – to find him. Early on in the season, Aaron Ramsey had difficulties being the link-man and indeed, much of the dispossessed figures are under his name. However, in recent games, there has been a marked improvement from Ramsey and his midfield partners and in the win over Stoke, all three midfielders (Alex Song, Mikel Arteta and Ramsey) completed three successful through-balls. Arsenal’s game is based on getting players behind and the three striker ploy could prove to be very deadly with the right supply and movement as Barcelona have shown.

With a four wins on the trot in all competitions since the international break, the improvements to Arsenal’s all-round game comes at a timely moment. The defence looks more secure, Arteta has added stability to the midfield while Ramsey has gone the opposite way, bringing spontaneity and van Persie is still van Persie. Gervinho, on the other hand…well, if he continues at this rate he may even be able to rival Messi for effectiveness.

Charting the rise and fall of Marouane Chamakh

At this point, it may be useful to compare the contrasting fortunes of Marouane Chamakh with van Persie. The Moroccan hit 10 goals in his first 17 games in 2010/11, but his confidence has since deserted him in the most drastic fashion. His performance against Stoke City, while not bad, showed just how much he’s battling with his own demons. It’s as if he’s become a caricature of himself in a bid to assert himself and find a place on the team. Chamakh’s play has become more functional, as displayed by the pass received charts below, and he is trying to pose himself as a “target man” alternative to van Persie, when in fact it was the ease with which he slotted into the team which made him a real success early on in his Arsenal career.

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<Figure 1>Chamakh’s pass received chart against Stoke shows how deep he dropped to pick up the ball. In comparison to last season at home to Birmingham – another team which defended very deep – he played higher up and was more involved in all channels of the pitch.

NB: With thanks to Joe Christoff for helping me to piece together and proofread the article although he wasn’t available when the second edit was made and major changes to the piece were made!

How Arsenal have been shaping up for 2011/12

Midfield rotation

With all the talk of Arsenal’s pre-season performances centring around defensive meltdown, it’s arguable (and we will argue that in our next article this week) that replacing Cesc Fábregas – or at least replicating his creativity – will be Arsenal’s main concern this impending season. Frustratingly for us tactical anoraks and dissectors, he hasn’t played a single minute in pre-season which means any tactical conclusions that are to made — if Cesc Fábregas stays of course — will be treading on the hypothetical.

In the friendlies this summer, Samir Nasri and Aaron Ramsey have exclusively played in the playmaker role but to mixed success. While Ramsey has shown the positives and freshness he can bring to the team, Samir Nasri has frankly been disappointing. He is supposedly the heir apparent to the more commonly known “Fábregas-role” but he has shown a underwhelming lack of football application recently, which his national team coach, Laurent Blanc, alluded to: “I hope that Samir, whether he stays with Arsenal or not, will play well for France, which was not the case in the last three matches.”

It seems to be that Nasri has resorted back to the same mannerisms that made him a fledgling talent instead of the match winner he was becoming halfway through last season. Arséne Wenger once said Nasri “was a bit too much attracted to the ball” and his displays in pre-season seem to have gone down that route against. Against Hangzhou Greentown in particularly, he tended to drift and follow the ball when he would be more useful looking to get into space. His other weakness is that his passing is not as penetrative as Fábregas’ but in pre-season, he either attempted too many or was not assertive enough. It’s a far cry from the start 2010/11 where he looked like the obvious successor to Fábregas —  there is, of course, time riddle out these inaccuracies because there is too much talent in Nasri — but he has since been usurped by Aaron Ramsey.

Ramsey is not a typical No.10; he prefers to pick up possession from deep rather than operate in the gap between midfield and attack but thus far, he has created a good chemistry with his two central midfield partners. If he drops back to pick up possession, it opens up space for one of his midfield partners to stride further forward. In the Emirates Cup it was mainly Tomas Rosicky although Jack Wilshere has looked threatening when using his drive further up field. What this tends to mean is the formation, rather than the 4-2-3-1 it is when Fábregas plays, looks more like a 4-1-4-1 with two midfielders either side of Alex Song. Indeed, some of Arsenal’s most cohesive performances last season came when Cesc Fábregas attempted to make a midfield three thus allowing one of his partners to push forward. It was frustrating not to see the Arsenal captain take part against Benfica because it would have then helped to see if this was a purposeful ploy from Wenger to encourage greater rotation between the midfield. As it is, we can perhaps pass it off as part of Ramsey’s natrualistic tendencies to want to play with the game in front of him although Neil Banfield, Arsenal’s reserve coach, gives the greatest insight into the Gunners’ tactics for this season after Arsenal XI’s 3-0 win over Woking. “[Tactically] we are working a lot on winning the ball back fairly quickly,” he said. “Getting our shape and quick rotation from midfield so there is quite a lot we’re looking for this season.”

Of course, the other advantage to Ramsey dropping back to pick up position is that it creates a natural vantage point to spray passes to the wide forwards of which is to become a key feature of Arsenal’s play in 2011/12.

<Figure 1> As happened against Benfica, the opposition when facing Arsenal, tend to press down the middle and get tight, stopping Arsenal from passing the ball out from the back. In the defeat, Alex Song tried to evade the attentions of his marker by moving left and right, opening up space for Aaron Ramsey to pick up the ball. This in turn allows Jack Wilshere to push forward into the No.10 role Ramsey may have started in and gives Arsenal an ambiguity which is harder to defend.

Strikers on the wings

In the matches Arsenal played at the Emirates Cup, they have tended to play with at least one striker on the flanks. That, at least, may have been forced upon Wenger as in the early games in the summer, he had Ryo Miyaichi and Theo Walcott to call upon — at the Emirates both were injured — while Arsenal’s forward players tend to be versatile anyway. What this resulted in, in the two matches against Boca Juniors and then New York Red Bulls, was a narrower attack but more men in the box as essentially Arsenal used three strikers. Against New York Red Bulls, the trio were Benik Afobe, Robin van Persie and Gervinho. And certainly, with van Persie tending to drop deep to pick up the ball, it opens up space for one of those strikers to occupy his position.

It maintains to be seen how this tactic will develop if Nasri goes back to the right or when Walcott and Andrey Arshavin come in. Wenger has tended to balance out the wings with one creative player –sometimes referred to as a “half-winger” — and a more dynamic winger the other side. His options next season seem less varied; if Nasri departs it only leaves Arshavin as a player vaguely described a creative winger while Tomas Rosicky will probably more time in the centre. There was plenty of interchange in pre-season, Gervinho particularly impressing and making sure he was always available. He’s the type of player, like van Persie, Song or Fábregas, that make the system who, when missing are evidently missed. Utilising the space behind the opposition through diagonals will be key, especially as space is already a premium whoever Arsenal are up against and Gervinho does that particularly well. His drive tended to lift the pessimistic atmosphere at the Emirates and is always deadly on the counter-attack.

<Figure 2> Arsenal faced a packed defence against New York Red Bulls with space at a premium. Arsenal struggled as the game wore on as their opponent camped more and more deeper but they still had good chances in the first-half to score. Aaron Ramsey getting behind was a key feature but as much was the wide men who constantly looked to profit in the spaces that Robin van Persie left behind when he dropped short. As a consequence the attack narrowed but Arsenal had more men to target in the box. Maybe Wenger got some of his inspiration from Barcelona who tend to flit in and out of a narrow and stretched front line and the wide forwards looking to get beyond Messi is a key feature.

Set-piece configurations

Arsenal’s woes from set-plays have been well documented. The most widely agreed solution is that Arsenal need a more dominant defender to slot in alongside Thomas Vermaelen and while that may be the case, Wenger is of the solution there is a more deep rooted problem than that. Of the 42 goals The Gunners conceded last season, 22 came from set-pieces but further delving into that statistic reveals only six came from corner kicks; the rest from free-kicks. That seems to suggest Wenger’s assertion that it is as much, a concentration and anticipation issue, as free-kicks whipped tend to be more varied and can cause confuse the defence as they are often back-tracking. Picking up your man in a man-marking system then becomes a bit of a muddle so it may be better to do away with the needless jostling for space and concentrate on what matters most: winning the ball. A zonal-marking system has now been deployed although we haven’t been able to fully examine it beyond corner kicks (although the goal conceded against Greentwon Hangzhou suggests a mixture, predominantly man-marking is used at free-kicks).

<Figure 3> The zonal-marking system displayed is a change from last season whereby Arsenal used a mixture of both although it was pre-dominantly man-marking. There is a curved line of six defenders at the edge of the six yard box, containing Arsenal’s best headers of the ball with the striker at the near post. Time will tell how the new layout will work as Premier League teams generally put pressure on the goalkeeper. (In this picture, the New York attacker is doing the same). It’s the same structure many teams who play a zonal-marking system use and it might be notable to say that the “Famous Four” under Geroge Graham also used zonal-marking.

Relaxed pressing

Arsenal’s pressing was also more relaxed. In this picture below, you can see Arsenal are more cautious, generally pressing more intensely if the ball gets into their own half or when they trap a defender. Last pre-season, Arsenal were practising an aggressive but structured pressing system but seem to have abandoned that. The structure is still there using the principles of through-marking but the intensity has been reigned in.

Kieran Gibbs adds a new dimension

Gael Clichy’s performances last season, while not the disaster some fans have made out, didn’t really rise above the average. Defensively he was generally solid and particular when Arsenal pressed, he was magnificent but he tended to handle pressure badly and suffered from a lack of concentration which sometimes led to him giving away dangerous opportunities. In attack he was not very effective – which was understandable given that he was forced to play cautiously as he wasn’t afforded the same protection as Bakary Sagna on the other side. (Sagna had the added bonus of having Alex Song in front of him in the double pivot as opposed to Clichy with Jack Wilshere).

It maintains to be seen just what Kieran Gibbs will bring defensively although he does look very comfortable if a bit carefree but he should make a huge difference to the attack. Already in the warm-up games he was very influential, getting into the box frequently and making dangerous runs and importantly, he crossed in for Robin van Persie in the 2-1 defeat to Benfica. A less talked about contribution he may bring is his ability to break down deep-lying defences as is often the case for Arsenal. Full-backs are generally the only players “free” on the pitch although against Arsenal that’s not always the case. Nevertheless, his bursts down the left can leave the defence unaware and he does have a dynamism about him which is hard to counter-act.