Tilting the Triangle

The centre of the park is a fiercely-contested battlefield in any football match. Rival midfielders fight tooth and nail to achieve supremacy in the central third with the victor of this battle, more often than not, going on to claim the overall spoils. The midfield is a vital cog in any team and remains so for Arsenal despite moving towards a more wing-based strategy last term. The ideal midfield should provide a robust stability when out of possession, a wall ready and waiting to shield the defence from the advances of the enemy. When in possession it holds the key to unlocking opposition defences, circulating the ball with unerring precision, and waiting for the exact moment to inflict the killer blow.

Despite Arsenal’s altered tactic last season, the midfield wasn’t suddenly absolved from duty, far from it. When quick, vertical transitions weren’t possible, for whatever reason, central craft was required to provide the breakthrough. Currently talk is rife of how Arsène Wenger may replace Robin van Persie’s impact within the team, should he depart, and of course that will go some way to deciding how competitive Arsenal are this coming season. Arguably, however, he has an even greater task still to perform: filling the giant hole that Cesc Fàbregas used to fit so snugly into. Understandably, given Cesc’s quality and the apparent funds available, this is easier said than done.

Without wishing to go over too much old ground and bring up a plethora of forcibly-erased memories of the majority it can’t be disputed that Cesc was our go-to man on so many occasions. If we needed a goal, simply put, we’d pass to him and hope he’d conjure up either yet another magical assist or net-bulging shot. Wenger’s decision to thrust Fàbregas forward behind the main striker was a defining one; one that was questioned at first by some but a decision that, after a brief adaptation period, simply couldn’t be argued. His burgeoning goals and assists columns the perfect response to the naysayers. He was our talisman, our creator-in-chief now at his devastating best on the fringes of the opposition box. His ability to provide the key pass in the final third of the pitch was unmatched in our squad and even if one were to look worldwide he’s in a select group of very few in this regard.

However, with his quality came a curse of sorts. A pass to Cesc became the easy pass, almost the only pass at times. His presence, through no fault of his own, seemed to inhibit the creative instincts of those around him. Tactically, though, subtle changes were made to the overall shape of the midfield partly perhaps to diminish this phenomenon while still keeping Cesc at the centre, quite literally, of our game plan. Having moved from a 1-2 structure (with a deep-lying holding player behind two more attacking midfielders) to a 2-1 shape with Fàbregas moved into a more advanced role, Wenger has since further tinkered with that shape.

The beauty of the double-pivot is it allows for rotation in the middle third, a blurring of roles that can pose the opposition multiple questions. Depending on circumstance any member of the midfield trio can feature at the point, allowing for untracked runs and more havoc in enemy ranks. Sure, Cesc was still very much the fulcrum of the team, but with that came increased attention, so if space was at a premium further up the pitch the structure gave him the option to drop deeper, dictating with enhanced freedom while allowing a teammate to take up his original position. The midfield triangle can be tilted at will with the opposition being pulled this way and that. At its best it can be extremely effective as illustrated in @BackwardsGooner’s masterfully crafted video detailing Arsenal’s midfield shape throughout a match at home to West Ham United in October of 2010:

In addition to the fluid element the double-pivot brings it can allow for creativity from other sources, depending on the personnel within said pivot of course. One player who has benefitted from this freedom is Alex Song. As the video above shows, when the triangle tilts Song can often become the most advanced midfielder allowing him to prompt with increased regularity. Arsène himself alluded to this growing attacking influence after Song’s goal in that game with a classic ‘Wengerism’: “He has got the taste to go forward, even if I think [it’s] a little too much sometimes for a holding midfielder! But that is part of our game as well.”

This “taste” of the attacking side of the game has resulted in greater assists for Song, especially last season. There’s certainly an argument for stating that he’s venturing forward more due to the inadequate creativity levels of others further forward but what is surely indisputable is that of our current midfielders he has relished the shared creative burden the most since Cesc’s return to Cataluña. His delicately weighted passes and somewhat surprisingly proficient dribbling ability (see a fan’s excellent capture of Robin van Persie’s 1st goal at home to Dortmund) are arguably becoming too predictable at times but they were undoubtedly welcome contributions during key periods of last year’s campaign.

As Wenger mentioned, this attacking instinct is part of our game and is no doubt encouraged throughout the squad. He wants his midfield to be the complete midfield: Capable going forward and going the other way; possessing ability on the ball and intelligence off it. It’s a desirable quality he has described on many occasions including last season where he lauded Arteta’s goal and controlling performance at the heart of midfield against Manchester City:

“He first won the ball back through complete focus on what the opponent will do and where he could lose the ball. He then finished the action and scored the goal. That is what I call a real midfielder, a guy who is always in the game.”

The goal typified Wenger’s definition of a complete midfielder; that means he can defend, give the final ball and score”. This often results in him either playing midfielders out of position in the first team on occasion or suggesting that should be the case for those in the Reserves. There’s a constant desire to improve the defective aspects of their game. Even regarding the early development of the aforementioned Fàbregas there was an ongoing aspiration to create an all-round midfield maestro. He demanded that Cesc should “improve on his defensive side because he is naturally an offensive player.” Playing on the right in his nascent career in the red and white, moving to a central role as Vieira departed, and then being thrust forward to take further control of our attacking potency all helped in creating the versatile, well-rounded talent he is today. Sadly, for Gooners, Barcelona are now the club profiting from such versatility and quality.

Anyway, I digress slightly. As with any system, there are drawbacks if the cogs aren’t completely aligned. As Wenger hinted at in his earlier quote of Song he perhaps ventures forward more frequently than is ideal, leaving the defence exposed as a result. Of course, he’s not the only member of the team that is at fault for the record-high tally of goals conceded under Arsène Wenger in the Premier League last season but, as part of the double-pivot, he must share some of that responsibility. Perhaps the system is partly to blame, though, allowing too much freedom so that specialization of roles is almost thrown out of the window at times. The ‘tilting triangle’ requires more intelligence and awareness of both the positions of your own teammates and the opposition than most midfield shapes.

André Villas-Boas, for one, believes such rotational freedom isn’t possible within the familiar high-octane tempo we enjoy so much on these shores leading to these words earlier this summer:

“We decided [rotational freedom] doesn’t work here, so that’s one of the things I have adapted. You lose a little bit of balance in the Premier League if you play that way. Transitions here are much more direct, making the importance of the number six [the holder] to stay in position more decisive.”

With that in mind, is it an option worth considering for Arsenal as well? Of course, Wenger has used a 1-2 shape in midfield before and it certainly has its merits. The most obvious aspect to note, as Villas-Boas mentions, is the presence of an outright defensive midfielder. Immediately, in theory at least, this gives more protection to the defence; previously unclear distinctions between roles instantly given clarity. More important, though, is the effect this has on the overall team shape and strategy.

A 2-1 midfield naturally leads to a 4-4-1-1 formation without the ball, with the no.10 assisting in the first wave of pressing. The midfield will subsequently follow and to remain compact, therefore neutralising space between stratas, the defence should also follow suit. This can result in a relatively high line which naturally leaves gaps in behind but the fact that the team is applying pressure on the ball should negate the ability of the opposition to exploit that space somewhat. Of course, teams can also practice a more reactive strategy with the defence and midfield dropping deeper without the ball, forming two banks of four. This is an attempt to reduce the space the trequartistas of this world thrive in but the best can still find room to operate effectively in this system.

A 4-2-3-1 with its double-pivot moving to more of a 4-4-1-1 shape without the ball.

Arguably, this isn’t so much the case with a 1-2 midfield. The no.6, operating deeper, can block some of the holes that emerge between the lines and keep a closer eye on wandering opposition 10’s. Furthermore, his presence can allow for further pressing higher up the pitch with greater numbers while still providing security on the counter. In extreme cases a 3-4-3 shape can be formed, with the holding midfielder dropping into defence, allowing the full backs to press on as the wide men have done ahead of them.

The altered positioning of the full backs within the 4-3-3/4-1-2-3 can take some time to adjust to, as Gael Clichy especially noted while we implemented that system, but in the long run it’s a shape that can pay off with the right personnel. It has its advantages when in possession as well as off-the-ball. Again depending on personnel, creative responsibility can be apportioned with the 2 more attacking midfielders sharing the load of a traditional no.10. Admittedly, that’s one less individual than in our current interpretation of the midfield shape (as at times all seem to wander forward!) but it still allows for a degree of freedom while keeping a firm eye on the defensive aspect of the game. Balance, as ever, is key to our fortunes.

A 4-1-2-3 with its designated holding player forming a 3-4-3.

We saw a brief look into the possible future of the Arsenal midfield at the back-end of the 10/11 season with Manchester United’s visit to the Emirates. Ramsey, Wilshere and Song formed the central trio that day and the presence of the former meant a change in our usual midfield shape. Whereas Fàbregas played as the clear no.10, Ramsey played a deeper role, taking it in turns with Wilshere to support the central striker, Robin van Persie. Alex Song’s role was more defined, and as our no.17 performed the role of a traditional no.6 in the system, he gave the stability and balance that Jack and Aaron required to exert their own creative influence on the game. It was fitting that Ramsey should score the winner; a triumph not only for his attacking thrusts but for the midfield shape.

Ramsey (red dot) and Wilshere (blue dot) have both ventured forward into the box with the former applying the killer touch to a flowing move which he started himself. His deployment deeper than a traditional no.10 allowed patient possession to develop, subsequently offering himself and Wilshere more time to advance into dangerous positions such as these.

The view from behind the goal shows Song (yellow dot) in the holding role just in front of the central defenders. His positioning gives Ramsey and Wilshere the confidence to advance in the same move while offering an additional body to ward off any potential counter-attacks.

We saw the Ramsey-Wilshere axis grow as a unit in the preseason of 11/12 but, unfortunately, that partnership would then be broken once again due to Wilshere’s injury, the ongoing nature of which is certainly a worry. Nevertheless, all being well, it’s clearly an option that Arsène sees prospering in the future. Of course, circumstances can change; the call of fans for signings to add that extra creative guile in the heart of midfield will seemingly never abate. One could certainly provide a strong case for such an investment but that argument will be left for another day, as will suggesting specific members of the current squad for certain roles any further than has been done already. The crux of this piece is shape and any alteration, albeit even a small one, could change things for the better.

Whether change is actually enacted is another matter. Realistically, the likelihood is that Arsène will stick with the rotational freedom that the double-pivot provides. That’s perfectly understandable and arguably the best option moving forward given its fundamental flexibility allowing for both defensive and offensive pivots. The question shouldn’t necessarily be “1-2 or 2-1?” but how best to marry the two. The missing ingredient at the moment is a complete understanding between teammates of their individual responsibilities as the shape continually shifts.  If such understanding can be found it’ll be a joy to watch the triangle tilt in seasons to come.

@hazzaboy21

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Success, Loyalty and the Inherent Bias of Fandom

Robin van Persie’s statement last week conveying his decision to not extend his current deal created waves of discontent in the Arsenal community.  Naturally, the subject of loyalty and the direction of football were raised in the aftermath. Player-power has seemingly never held such a prominent role in the game as it does now.  These issues have weighed on my mind for some time and regardless of the eventual outcome of yet another summer transfer window saga in N5 I feel it’s time I met them head-on, so to speak. The cyclical nature of stars leaving for pastures new and the subsequent heartache endured by fans is hardly a novel occurrence but in this torrent of emotion the objective view is often discarded. The aim of this piece is to address that somewhat in rather general terms.

Strip down the beloved colours of whatever team it may be that you support and what is left? One man and his job. Footballers are human beings like you and I. They may enjoy a considerably more lavish lifestyle than us “norms” but they are still humans all the same. As the financial aspect of the game continues to reach frankly ridiculous levels, the perspective of both fans and players alike are stretched to the maximum. Whereas in the past there seemed to be a close bond between both groups, a real sense that obstacles were met as one, the continuing disparity in values has diminished that feeling. The overwhelming mood is one that football is losing, if it hasn’t already lost, its somewhat magical allure. Hopes and dreams that are slow cooked in life’s oven are burnt in an instant; Loyalty a value tossed by the wayside.

Football has changed, there’s no doubting that. What was once primarily a hobby, admittedly back in days of yore, is now a commercial cash cow with the sole aim of squeezing every last penny out of the very people who are the reason the game has such a standing in the first place. Football clubs have become businesses first and foremost with footballers their employees. Like in any profession it is natural, if one has an ambitious streak, to aim for the top. There are few feelings for a determined soul better than that of success. So, from a purely objective standpoint it makes perfect sense that an individual, especially a world class one in their field, should want to join an organization at the very top of their particular sector.

The money argument is an oft-used one and of course there have been numerous players in the past who have moved clubs simply to improve their wealth. I feel it’s important to stress, however, that these broad strokes shouldn’t be attributed to all players. Take Robin van Persie’s present situation. If indeed he does end up at Manchester City, yes, he will be increasing his wage by a hefty amount. Sure, the Sheikhs in Middle Eastlands have distorted the financial landscape of the game more than I imagined was possible only a few years ago but now, having benefitted from that injected wealth, City possess the “success” card too. It’s convenient that both monetary gain and success can be achieved at the Etihad now but it shows that these aspects don’t have to be mutually exclusive, contrary to the way they are often referred to in the modern day press. Bringing the situation back to the real world, one may love working in their present company but if a more successful company comes along offering you a better wage and a similar level of enjoyment I wouldn’t begrudge anyone from taking that option.

Of course, when emotions are involved it’s not always that simple. Our fandom brings with it an inherent bias; one that makes objectivity a difficult feat. We constantly demand that players show the same loyalty to the club we hold dear as we do ourselves, calling any player that doesn’t selfish. However, aren’t our own demands selfish in themselves?  The majority of fans are tied to the club of their choice for life. It’s a bond that is near impossible to break.  By default we bask in the glory days and wallow in the mire of failure. In contrast, a player’s sporting life near the top of their game lasts ten years maximum and that’s for the exceedingly fortunate. Yet we demand that they play out those years in our familiar dwelling rather than in the stadia of our rivals. We hold this desire regardless of the ability of our club to challenge for the silverware that many in the game crave. Again, this is merely natural human sentiment, but our own fanatical support can sometimes cloud the wider picture.

Contract duration: Life

“What of their contracts?” you may ask. “If they’ve agreed to stay for a certain time period shouldn’t they adhere to that?” A very valid question but an issue that is liable, once more, to bias. The fact is there are many occasions where the club can benefit from a contract just as much as the player. “Selling contracts” where a player signs for an extra year simply to give the club more leverage when entering transfer negotiations are rife and a clear example of this. A player signing a long contract may give them stability but it also gives the club a relative position of strength when facing bids from elsewhere.

Depending on a fan’s subjective opinion of a specific player they may or may not agree with the principles of their contract. Go back to the example of Robin van Persie for instance. A player whose standing in this present Arsenal team was immense before his statement. We, the fans, wanted nothing more than for him to prolong his stay in Arsenal colours, subsequently disagreeing when his own free will as a human being resulted in him coming to the opposite decision.

Take a player such as Sébastien Squillaci, however, and the call of the majority is to cut our ties as soon as possible. Fans who furiously demand loyalty of their favourites can be incredibly hypocritical when a player doesn’t take their fancy. On occasion, I’ve echoed similar sentiments so I’m certainly not in a position to condemn such behaviour. Unsurprisingly as fans, given the links to our club first and foremost, individuals of lesser quality are seen as surplus to requirements. In fact, that same stance is invariably shared by the club itself even though there are several occasions where the player in question may still have years left to run on their contract. The business-like nature of football makes this acceptable for most but again it highlights the two-faced nature of loyalty in the game.

Maldini, Giggs and Scholes: 3 names that are commonplace in any argument touching on loyalty in football and rightly so given their respective years of service to their clubs. These one-club men will go down in history and their performances on the pitch have been a credit to their profession. Despite this, it remains a fact that their careers either took place, or are still taking place in the case of the latter two, in a successful environment. The trophy cabinets at their clubs have been filled on a regular basis throughout their careers and for that very reason it’s difficult to attain a grasp of exactly how loyal they are. Would they have left for more successful clubs had silverware been more of a rarity? Any purist would like to think not but the hypothetical nature of the question leaves a lingering sense of doubt.

Loyalty isn’t simply black and white, though, it’s a spectrum. A sea of grey in which fans and players alike tread water. Every fan wishes they had a squad full of Matt Le Tissiers; players with their club truly at heart, willing to stay throughout the lows and spurning opportunities of potentially greater things elsewhere. The reality is that such loyalty is scarce but it’s a depressing reality that most should expect nowadays. After all, footballers are only human.

@hazzaboy21

Attack, Defence and the Quest for Balance

The 2011/12 Premier League season:  A season voted the best ever in the league’s 20 year history (in its current guise). While one may argue that the outright level of quality wasn’t at its highest this season, no-one can deny the sheer amount of excitement generated throughout culminating in an exhilarating end at the Etihad stadium. The moment the ball left Kun Agüero’s right foot and hit the back of the net encapsulated this in an instant. Mass euphoria for the blue half of Manchester. Heart-wrenching despair for the red half. Football at its dramatic best.

Some are fascinated by the minutiae of tactical changes over the course of a game while the heartbeats of others are raised by a good, old-fashioned crunching tackle. The staple diet of the majority, however, is goals and there were plenty this season. In fact, Agüero’s late effort was the 1065th goal of this remarkable campaign, a record for a 20-team Premier League season. As you’d expect on the back of that an exceptionally high 2.81 goals per game were scored, the highest ratio in the English top-flight since magic picture boxes were still showing black and white images (3.03 in 1967/68). Which begs the question, what were the defenders doing?

There’s no doubt, in my mind at least, that there are still players highly skilled in the art of defending playing in the Premier League. Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott formed an impressive pairing at the back for Manchester City and along with Joe Hart were a key reason for their title success this season. Other players once derided even by portions of their own fans, Jonny Evans and Laurent Koscielny, have shown fantastic improvement this season and become vital components in their respective teams’ defensive phase. In contrast to Liverpool’s woes in front of goal, Martin Skrtel has proved to be a rock in a defence that allowed the opposition the fewest shots on target of any Premier League club this season (132).

Fabricio Coloccini’s fine season was acknowledged with a place on the PFA Players’ Player Team of the Year, Pablo Zabaleta was his usual reliable self whenever called upon by Roberto Mancini while Younes Kaboul’s performances have resulted in him being Harry Redknapp’s first choice pick at the heart of his defence and being awarded a provisional place in the France squad for Euro 2012. I could go on listing skilled Premier League defenders as there are many more but, in short, my point is that the individual quality is certainly there.

What isn’t there, at least on a regular basis, is efficient collective organisation. Consider the following results: Manchester City (final position 1st) 6 Manchester United (2nd) 1, Manchester United 8 Arsenal (3rd) 2, Arsenal 5 Tottenham Hotspur (4th) 2, Tottenham Hotspur 5 Newcastle United (5th) 0. These are remarkable results between teams who weren’t separated by that much in the final reckoning (gap between 2nd and 3rd apart). Granted, there were mitigating circumstances for some of these scorelines but on the whole they show a rather naïve tactical approach either in the initial setup of the respective losing teams or during the carnage.

These examples don’t even include Chelsea who themselves have been on different ends of cricket scores (albeit very low ones) in some of the ‘big’ games. Their 3-5 loss to Arsenal at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season was a prime example of excitement induced by kamikaze defending. Both sides gave master classes in how not to play a high defensive line. A lack of pressure higher up the field meant both defences were extremely vulnerable to even the most rudimentary long ball. The difference between the sides on that day, and where Arsenal won the match, was seeing this and making a change to rectify the initial error. The team in red dropped slightly deeper in the second half and weren’t as immediately susceptible to the long ball unlike their London rivals who were steadfast in their approach. André Villas-Boas was subjected to a lot of flak that day but his philosophy wasn’t the issue, it was more its implementation. Gradually, as he saw his squad weren’t willing to accept his methods, he adopted a more conservative approach but sadly for him the die had already been cast.

That away victory was one of many in the Premier League this season. 30.5% of games have ended in this fashion, higher than in any other Premier League season. It’s clear that managers have had a more offensive mindset when setting their team up which is another reason for the glut of goals this campaign. The rationale for this change in mentality is somewhat less clear-cut. It could be that the top teams seem, and in fact are, more vulnerable than they once were resulting in the ‘smaller’ clubs taking the handbrake off rather than travelling to the big grounds, parking the bus and waiting for the inevitable breakthrough.

Courtesy of The Independent

Premier League managers are also currently more progressive in their philosophy. The ambition of the ‘lesser’ clubs has meant an increase in attacking play throughout the league. There seems to be a greater number of teams adopting a certain ethos of playing, namely with the ball on the deck, and not altering that approach when they come up against sides they might traditionally expect to be battered by. Roberto Martinez’s Wigan, with their 3-4-3 and Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea with their 4-3-3 have both surprised opposition at times with their attacking transitions and technical quality on the ball. We’ve also seen this with other promoted teams in recent years.

Ian Holloway’s Blackpool devoted almost no time in their game to defending and though they paid for it in the end their attacking play brought them many plaudits and large scalps along the way. Paul Lambert’s Norwich are possibly an exception to this rule of sticking to one particular style. He’s a manager that often changes the shape of his team dependent on the opposition but the attacking intent generally remains. Despite only keeping 3 clean sheets all season, goals from all over the team helped them to reach the safe haven that is mid-table. The more success these types of teams have with this approach the more expansive styles will be integrated into the English game.

So, is Premier League defending dead? All the signs certainly point to it being in a lull at the moment. Gone are ‘the Mourinho years’ in which Chelsea’s defence was at its resolute best. Looking back it’s quite remarkable they only conceded 15 goals in the 2004/05 season. Mourinho’s success at Chelsea brought in a wave of cautious tactics across the league and a drop in the number of goals as a result. Managers adopted the thinking that it’s easier to destroy a masterpiece than create one and with José showing results could be gained with a controlled style why should they bother implementing a more open system? Of course, this generalises a bit. Mourinho’s Chelsea was hardly lacklustre. They were a well-drilled machine well capable of exploiting weaknesses in the opposition but what can’t be disputed is the fact that defence always came first.

This was something that Roberto Di Matteo grasped immediately when taking over the reins from Villas-Boas. Given the personnel at his disposal he decided the most logical approach, especially in high-profile games, was to instruct his team to sit deep and compact before springing to life on the counter-attack. Though this tactic didn’t help Chelsea climb the table in the league it did aid them in knockout competition where purity, and to some extents naivety, is often trumped by pragmatism. Of course, Bayern still had ample opportunities to triumph in Munich but Chelsea’s defensive display in the Camp Nou especially (where similarities with Mourinho’s Inter success were very apparent) was in stark contrast to those of most English teams throughout the season both in European competition and on their own shores.

Manchester City have this year won the league conceding 29 goals, almost double Chelsea’s record, and a tally higher than the average over the last 10 years (25.7) . Perhaps fittingly the newly-crowned Champions also scored the most goals yet the word ‘United’ rather than ‘City’ could well have been inscribed on the Premier League trophy had the red half of Manchester defended with a collective cohesion in the dying minutes at home to Everton. Nevertheless, in the end the trophy was won (or lost) on goal difference and for this reason it’s impossible to forget the 6-1 between the two sides earlier in the season. Had Manchester United not been so cavalier against City that day perhaps the ending of this tumultuous season might have been different.

Open, expansive football may conjure excitement but it doesn’t necessarily get results. As ever, a balance is needed. An ability to attack and defend as one. For most teams the elusive search for balance continues.

Many thanks to Opta (@OptaJoe) for their continued provision of stats galore.

If you enjoyed this piece you can follow me on twitter ~> @hazzaboy21

Time to say adieu to Abou?

Abou Diaby is a player who has divided opinion ever since his transfer from Auxerre in the January transfer window of ’06. Being a tall, French, black central midfielder he came with the inevitable tag of ‘The Next Vieira’ but it was evident from early on he was unlike our former captain in many ways. As he does with many players fresh to the squad, Arsène Wenger integrated Abou into the starting XI slowly and positioned him on the flank when he did so. Here, he was able to show unexpected trickery and a languid style outside the furiously-paced Premier League engine room. Out wide he could develop somewhat out of the limelight. Mistakes would be less costly there. He would be given more time to adapt.

Things were going quite well for Abou. He scored his first Arsenal goal in a 5-0 rout of Aston Villa and was beginning to make more of a difference in matches. Unfortunately, that promising start would be brought to an abrupt end on May 1st at the Stadium of Light. Dan Smith’s injury-time tackle that day left Abou with a fracture dislocation of his right ankle. He would be out for 9 months.

Sadly for Abou this would be the first of many injuries he’d suffer in his stop-start career to the extent that up till now he’s had to endure another 31 injuries of varying severity. That’s roughly 5 a year. It was even rumoured that after the new Medical Centre at London Colney was built a wing would be named after Diaby seeing as he knew the medical staff so well. The validity of these rumours may be tenuous…

Despite his plethora of injuries it seemed as if the 09/10 season might have been a turning point for our man made of glass. Calf and knee problems around the turn of the year hindered him slightly but for the majority Abou was making his familiar driving runs on a regular basis now positioned in the heart of midfield. His long galloping stride would leave opponents for dead at times so much so that squint and you would’ve been forgiven for thinking we had never sold Paddy to i Bianconeri all those years ago. He managed 35 starts and 5 substitute appearances that season, scoring 7 goals in the process.

As is his luck, however, those numbers have not been replicated. I write this after seeing Abou, after yet another return, limp off the pitch at the Britannia Stadium as the final whistle blew. It has since emerged that he suffered a calf strain which will rule him out of the remaining two games of the season and the European Championships this summer (if he was in contention at all). His season has amounted to a grand total of only 117 minutes spread over 5 substitute appearances in all competitions. There’s no getting around the matter. That is a woeful total. So much so that the question must be asked: Is it time we moved our separate ways?

“Not a fragile footballer”? (L’Équipe)

While all fans lament his luck with injuries and some have bones to pick regarding his occasionally lackadaisical style of play which hinders our tempo at times, Diaby is a player who is held in high regard amongst his peers. Laurent Blanc, manager of the French National Team, has stated that he’s “an incredible player” and that if fit he would “want to bring him to the Euros.” Sadly it doesn’t look like this will happen. Club teammate Bacary Sagna takes that hyperbole on further with his opinion that “without injuries Diaby would surely be the best French footballer.” High praise indeed but of course we must face reality. The injuries have been there.

Diaby’s assertion earlier this year that he is not fragile certainly would have raised a few eyebrows amongst fans. While this may be the case in his own mind unfortunately the facts paint a story quite to the contrary. He seems to be in a perpetual state of battling back to full fitness. The worry is that there’s no simple fix for his predicament. Theo Walcott suffered a number of shoulder dislocations in his early days at the club yet procedures on both cured the issue. Despite many operations Abou shows little signs of improvement.

“I have had three operations on my ankle, all for different problems but the result of that was that my body is unbalanced, especially in my legs.I have overused one over the other and to put everything back in place is not easy.Today my ankle is twice as big because of the surgery. My problem is a biomechanical problem. I need to work daily on how to rebalance my body.”

A by-product of his multitude of injuries has been fear. He admits that has been the case in the past:

“I have to say that last season I feared a bit to play. It was so important for me to come back to my best level and to avoid getting injured again that I had this little apprehension.”

It would only be natural given his lack of game time that this fear would still be pervading his play. Fear can cripple reflexes and the Premier League can be unforgiving to individuals slow in both thought and in body. Every failed comeback would be a mental blow as much as a physical one making each subsequent return that little bit more difficult than the last. It’s a potentially infinite cycle.

Arsenal supporters are certainly no strangers to injury-prone players. In fact, it has unfortunately become tradition for a member of the first team squad to be absent for the majority or whole duration of the season in recent years. Diaby and those in favour of keeping him at the club would likely argue that the likes of Tomáš Rosický and our prolific captain Robin van Persie were in a similar position to him in the past. I accept that they have suffered from recurrent muscular injuries during their time at the club and *touchwood* have put those issues behind them but I’d argue that neither have had the same extent of surgery as Diaby. His case is far more extreme.

Careful, Abou!

As long as he possesses this ‘injury-prone’ tag Abou will not be an attractive prospect to any potential buyer. His talents are clear but, and I’m stating the obvious here, they are useless to a club if he is forever on the treatment table. In previous years this may not have been such a problem. Before the 25-man squad rule was implemented in the Premier League clubs could hoard as many players as they saw fit. Now, however, there is pressure on efficiency of squad numbers. Diaby takes up both an over 21 and non-homegrown spot in the squad which could easily be filled by a player who, and I realise this sounds harsh, could actually contribute to the team’s performance on the pitch. Arsenal Football Club’s main interest, as stated in the name, is football not medical care.

So, what are our options?

Sell him. However, as I’ve mentioned previously due to his situation there would be few prospective takers.

Mutual termination of contract. Diaby still has 3 years left on a reported £60,000 per week deal. It’s highly unlikely that this option would materialise.

Persevere. Continue as we are with the hope that eventually his days on the sidelines will end.

Loan. A compromise of sorts. Any prospective loan would likely involve Arsenal subsidising a certain proportion of his wages but would also make him a slightly more attractive prospect to interested clubs. There’s no guarantee that a loan spell would result in an upturn in fortune but it would act as an intermediary option that may suit all parties.

Regardless of the option Arsène decides on this summer I think we can all agree that Diaby deserves a huge change in luck. Whether he gets that is another matter but he seems more determined than ever to make sure he fulfils his undoubted potential. I leave you with a few words from the man himself:

 “I have never been as motivated as I am now. I want to prove to everybody, and especially to myself, that I can do it. I have faith in what I am doing. I will never give up and I know that I will come out of this tunnel.”

I certainly hope you do, Abou.

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The 3 P’s – Part 3 (Possession)

Part 1 (Pressing)

Part 2 (Penetration)

Arsenal under Arsène Wenger are known worldwide for their exciting brand of free-flowing passing football. It has seen them acquire multiple admirers over the years and this has meant a constant flow of fans through the gates at both Highbury and more recently the Emirates. Fans who, on the whole, have witnessed the boys in Red and White follow their manager’s philosophy by dominating games keeping the ball on the floor. Maximise possession and the rest will follow is the mantra.

Possession can be such a powerful tool and has been treated accordingly for many years. Before England played Brazil in the 1970 World Cup, Sir Alf Ramsey told his team to “treat the ball like it is made of gold and never let it go.”  He realised the very simple fact that the less the opposition have of the ball the less chance they’ll have of scoring. This is central to the defensive element of possession.

Spain and Barcelona are more recent examples of teams with possession at the heart of their ethos and have taken the ‘keep-ball’ style of play or ‘tiki-taka’ to a level not seen before by many. When games are won they are the experts at taking the sting out of a game, closing out games with ease by doing what they love – keeping the ball.

Maintain control of the ball and you can also ‘pass teams to death’ – keep them chasing until they tire and be ready to capitalise later on in games. This is the attacking element of possession. We’ve seen this quite a lot in recent years with Wenger keen for his teams to be ultra-fit so as to take advantage in the dying moments. Something that often gets overlooked in teams who aim to monopolise possession is the amount of running they do off-the-ball simply to find pockets of space to give their teammates more passing options and thus create a higher chance of keeping hold of the ball.

Nigel Winterburn described how “Arsène Wenger’s training is all about possession of the football, movement of the football and support of one another.” This will be nothing new to you and is illustrated by the fact we were the side with the highest average percentage possession last season (61%) and the side with the best passing accuracy with 84%*. However over the last few years our performances on occasion have made me wonder – should we be better on the ball than we are?

Many teams use the same tactic when they come up against us. Concede possession of the ball without a fight, park the bus and ask us to break them down. So many teams have implemented this over the years that I’ve wondered whether it might be an idea if the groundsman might paint double yellow lines on the opposition’s goal line each half.

However, on the odd occasion that a team does ‘have a go’ at us and press higher up the pitch we often seem ponderous and sloppy in possession. It may be because we’re not used to facing this tactic that often but forgive me for hoping a team known worldwide for their passing football might do better. Take last year’s visit of Barcelona for instance – A brilliant win and arguably the greatest night at the Emirates. Despite this the majority of our play that night was very inaccurate. Barça are arguably the best pressing team in the world but I would still have expected us to keep the ball better. We ended the game with 39%** possession so there’s certainly room for improvement.

Possession isn’t everything of course. Football is a results business and nobody will preach that more than José Mourinho. His Inter Milan side famously only had a remarkable 16%** of the ball when they faced Barcelona in the second leg of their Champions League Semi Final in the 09/10 season. Inter may have lost that leg 1-0 and were lucky on a few occasions not to concede a second which would have meant elimination from the competition but ultimately they stood firm to reach the final and eventually win the trophy.

So how can we, a team that aims to possess the majority of the ball, beat these teams that set out with a defensive mentality? I addressed this to a degree in Part 2 of the 3 P’s (Penetration) but would further like to add to that the speed of ball circulation. Former Racing Santander coach and Real Madrid sporting director Miguel-Ángel Portugal hits the nail on the head when speaking on the matter:

“The faster you move the ball, the harder it is for the opposition to cover all the gaps because they get pulled from side to side.”

Possession, in an attacking sense at least, is nothing without pace or a sudden change of it. Reserve team coach Neil Banfield mentioned in preseason that this was one of the things the coaches were encouraging the youngsters to improve on and this is being continued in the first team set-up. After Sunderland’s visit to the Emirates earlier this season, midfielder Jack Colback explained that the expanse and speed of our play was a real eye-opener:

“Obviously we played Chelsea at home but I don’t think they move it around as quick as Arsenal. They make the pitch really big and they’re constantly rotating so you don’t really get a chance to have a breather.”

These are encouraging words and while we’re seeing a return to the more direct Arsenal of the early Wenger years it’s good to see opposition players are still suffering physically with our lateral play. One man who has been instrumental in this is Mikel Arteta. When he arrived on the last day of the summer transfer window he was regarded by many as a replacement for Cesc Fàbregas but his performances have been more akin to a Denilson upgrade. Robust in the tackle and positionally aware it is his intelligent passing that have really stood out. He is currently the only Premier League player in the top 10 for average passes per game from the top 5 European leagues (77.9) and has an impressive pass accuracy percentage of 90.4% (Incidentally Aaron Ramsey is 12th on the list with an average of 71.6 passes a game)***.

Arteta keeps possession, often with one or two touches, thus linking play and keeping the speed of ball circulation high. This role should not be underestimated in our system and it is also extremely useful when considering the defensive element of our possession. So far this season we have been able to close out games with more ease than in recent years and much of this may be down to the added experience in the squad. However, on a few occasions (namely Marseille away and West Brom at home) we have seen what I like to call the ‘narrow-asymmetrical-possession-domination tactic.’ Catchy name, eh?

Here we have the positions of the Arsenal players in the 2nd half of the match vs Marseille at the Stade Vélodrome.

1. We can see the players set in a 4-3-3 formation with Tomáš Rosický (7) as the most attacking midfielder. 2. Gervinho (27) has been subbed on for Theo Walcott (14). 3. This is where we adopt the possession-domination formation I mentioned earlier. Aaron Ramsey (16), brought on for Andrei Arshavin in the 78thminute, replaces Rosický in the middle, Tomáš moves a little to the left and Gervinho moves more central, closer to Robin van Persie (10) forming a compact 4-2-3-1. In practice both Ramsey and Rosický were rotating between central and left-ish roles and it was this fluidity of movement that allowed an increase in possession in the last few minutes of the game.

In the above picture we see Rosický (red dot) wide on the left with Ramsey (yellow dot) central. Gervinho (blue dot) has moved into a more central position to support van Persie.

However, in this picture we see Rosický more central with Ramsey in the left wing position making a run to get onto the end of Djourou’s cross. He receives the ball and keeps his composure to finish low past Mandanda.

In the West Brom game both our ‘runners’ (Walcott and Gervinho) were replaced by ‘ball players’ (Benayoun and Arshavin) while Rosický replaced Ramsey. These changes had the similar effect of helping us keep possession in the latter stages of the game. This is something we haven’t seen that often this season but it could become more of a regular occurrence when Jack Wilshere returns to full fitness. Walcott and Gervinho have contributed greatly to our improved penetration but the likes of Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosický, Benayoun and Arshavin could be used for occasions where more possession may be necessary.

Finally but by no means least, as Michael Cox of Zonal Marking explains, the passing ability of a team’s goalkeeper can be crucial to their overall possession. For a while now I’ve been a little riled at Wojciech Szczęsny’s distribution. While he has worked on this there have still been numerous occasions this season where our periods of pressure through possession have been lost through a Wojciech punt forward. This might be a valid tactic if we were an aerially dominant team and for all his critics the presence of Marouane Chamakh actually helps us in this regard. However, without him in the team long kicks upfield are often lost. To illustrate this below are two chalkboards from Round 10 of this season’s Premier League season where we defeated a certain team at the Bridge.

Vorm: 45/47 successful passes (96%); Szczęsny: 21/34 successful passes (62%)

The chalkboard on the left shows Swansea’s Michael Vorm choosing to play short passes which are successful (denoted by the blue arrows) thus maintaining possession for his team. Szczęsny however opts to play several longer balls which in the main turn out to be unsuccessful (red arrows). Incidentally Swansea are the shortest team in the Premier League and so Vorm’s distribution is even more logical. Wojciech can clearly improve more in this regard.

Conclusion

Arsène Wenger’s philosophy in emphasis on possession is much admired and with good reason. Look all around Europe and the sides at the top of the tables will invariably have the highest average possession stats. Our new-found direct style is addressing our penetration issues but ultimately we need possession to achieve success. After all, how can you score without the ball?

* Opta Stats (@OptaJoe)

** uefa.com

*** WhoScored.com

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Is 4-4-2 really the answer?

Picture the scene. We’ve just drawn a blank at the Emirates against a team that we are expected to beat handsomely. Hoards of fans rush out of the ground disgruntled at another 2 points lost. On the tube journey home you launch into your usual routine of reflecting on the match, assessing the positives and the negatives. Then you hear an increasingly familiar question from a group at the other side of the carriage, “Why doesn’t he just go back to 4-4-2?”

The calls to change to 4-4-2 are definitely becoming more numerous but why is that? One reason is that, in the Premier League at least, the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 is in vogue. The Manchester clubs have raced out of the traps using this formation (albeit different variations of the same shape). The red half have done what Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams have so often done in the past and used their pacy wingers to stretch the play while the midfield two of Cleverley/Carrick and Anderson have added positive intent in the middle of the park. Roberto Mancini on the other hand has used a more solid duo in centre midfield as the base on which their creative inverted wingers can attempt to prompt and create havoc in the opposition’s defence.

In fact, considering Liverpool occasionally use 4-4-2 with either Carroll or Kuyt and Suarez leading the line, and keeping in mind Harry Redknapp’s fondness for a classic ‘big man, little man’ pairing up top it could be argued that 4 of last year’s top 6 are facilitating the comeback of 4-4-2. With this in mind and considering our current woes it’s only natural for fans to reminisce of the ‘good old days’ where 4-4-2 was gospel.

Pros of 4-4-2

1. In recent games Robin van Persie has become somewhat isolated. Giving him a striking partner would immediately solve that problem and depending on the particular partner would coax different qualities from his game.

2. Giving van Persie a partner up front would also aid the partner. Chamakh and Park are in direct competition with van Persie for the lone striker role currently. As it’s incredibly unlikely our captain would be dropped, moving to 4-4-2 would give them more game time. Thinking back to Chamakh’s time at Bordeaux he forged a very good partnership with Gourcuff with both of their strengths being complemented by the other individual (Yoann’s prowess at delivering a ball from deep or a set piece with great technical quality and Marouane’s aerial ability).

After the first few occasions that both van Persie and Chamakh played together, where there appeared to be a little tension between the two, there have been brief glimpses more recently of a similar combination forming. Marouane’s latest goal vs Blackburn was very reminiscent of one he may have scored for Bordeaux and it would be interesting to see if the Chamakh of old could be reinvigorated by partnering van Persie upfront.

“Blimey, it’s gone in!”

3. Of course that role of playing up front alongside van Persie could also be taken by Theo Walcott. Not a day passes, it seems, before Theo is once again championing his case for playing as the spearhead of the team. Having been a striker in his youth and with Wenger constantly saying he’ll eventually play there it’s very understandable that Walcott feels this way. In theory his good movement and pace seem suited to that of a classical poacher. I’m not saying for one moment that he would be good as someone like Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez but he does have similar attributes to the lively Mexican.

Consider this recent quote from Arsene discussing Walcott:

“When you look at Theo, he’s a player who you think sometimes ‘he could have contributed more then’, but then you think ‘who scored the goal?’ Him. Or ‘who made the pass?’ It’s him. He’s a player who is efficient.”

This certainly rings true when you think about Theo’s impact in games. He still drifts in and out of games more than one would like but think back to a game and it’s invariably Theo who has been involved in our goals. This is reflected by the stats. Last season, Theo scored a goal once every 189 minutes and assisted a goal every 242 minutes in his 1697 total league minutes. He scored 9 goals and assisted 7 giving him a ‘points’ total of 16. Therefore, in the table below ranking the Premier League players’ attacking efficiency in the 10/11 season he scored a point every 106 mins (1697/16)*.

RANK PLAYER ATTACKING   EFFICIENCY (point per x mins)
1 Robin van Persie 71
2 Dimitar Berbatov 92
3 Carlos Tevez 97
4 Wayne Rooney 101
5 Theo Walcott 106
6 Rafael van der Vaart 107
7= Luis Nani 116
7= Didier Drogba 116
9 Salomon Kalou 120
10= Peter Odemwingie 122
10= Roman Pavlyuchenko 122

(Includes players who played > 1500 mins last season)

So, Theo ended the season as the 5th most efficient player in the league in terms of scoring and creating goals. Many factors have to be taken into consideration here including his relatively small number of minutes on the pitch compared to some. Though more minutes could mean more ‘points’, unless he continued to score and assist at the same regularity his efficiency would decrease. The general quality of teammates and position should also be taken into consideration but he compares favourably to other ‘wingers’: A Arshavin 129, A Johnson 170, A Young 180, S Nasri 217, D Silva 233, S Downing 242, G Bale 306 and A Lennon 473. (Out of interest Javier Hernandez also scored 106 but only played 1488 mins).

As long as Walcott keeps this efficiency up there’ll always be that question lingering about whether he’d be able to improve the numbers even further if played upfront.

Cons of 4-4-2

1. 4-4-2 with this group of players is a total unknown and although there is an obvious hope/intrigue that a partner for RvP would aid our potency there’s the other side of the coin where it might disrupt our play for the worse. At the time of writing RvP has scored 23 goals in 25 games in 2011**. Only Cristiano Ronaldo, Mario Gomez and Lionel Messi have better records. Do we dare tinker with that?

2. There’s no guarantee that van Persie’s potential partner would prove more efficient than an extra midfielder and the added possession they would inevitably cause. Take Theo Walcott for example. His shooting and finishing have noticeably improved (29.2% of his total shots were on target last season compared to 26.7% in the 09/10 season and 9.4% of these shots were goals compared to only 3.3% in the previous season)*. However, questions remain over other characteristics needed of a striker. Does he have the touch and the body strength to be able to hold the ball up at the top end of the pitch? Are his runs good enough so as take him away from the attention of defenders who would be marking him closer than usual? These remain doubts in Wenger’s mind I imagine.

3. Looking at our squad in particular I wonder about the suitability of the players to a 4-4-2 formation. Teams that make it work usually have either orthodox or inverted wingers of quality who take on the bulk of the attacking onus. It seems to me that our most natural wide men at the moment (arguably Oxlade-Chamberlain and Miyaichi) are too young and inexperienced.

There’s certainly an argument to take on a more asymmetrical shape using a more orthodox winger/direct forward on one side (eg. Gervinho) and a more creative/hard-working midfielder on the other flank (eg. Ramsey or Rosicky). This is actually the type of structure I prefer in a 4-4-2 and is something we’ve used to good effect in past Wenger midfields. I would again worry about the familiarity of the specific personnel to these positions though.

Tied in with this is the pure number of centre midfielders in our squad. When you add those in our academy and Reserves it would seem quite odd to start using a 4-4-2 formation where a large proportion of these players would become rather redundant. We can’t just discard them all.

4. Finally, a basic tactical point. Simply due to its shape, a 4-4-2 generally has less fluidity and movement than a 4-2-3-1. There can be exceptions to this of course as the Manchester clubs’ attacking play this season has shown. City in particular seem to be joining Villarreal in their utilisation of ‘Brazil’s magic box’, making a 4-2-2-2 in attack. Without such a variation the lower numbers of strata or bands in the system make for fewer possibilities to roam.

This can not only be a hindrance going forward but can also pose problems defensively. Having a formation with fewer strata naturally opens up more space between these bands which can be exploited by the ever-growing number of trequartista’s (no.10s) appearing in world football. In addition to this the 3-man central midfield has become far more popular than when Wenger last implemented 4-4-2. Even when he did so he had Flamini whose incredible stamina and work-rate almost completely compensated for a relative lack of numbers in midfield. We have nobody currently in our squad with the same desirable characteristics which would make a move to 4-4-2 more difficult.

Conclusion

Overall it seems to me that 4-2-3-1 fits our squad and the club as a whole best. Though it would be interesting to see how we’d fare playing 4-4-2, and perhaps there should be a little more flexibility to switch between the two, I think the shortcomings of the system with our current personnel outweigh the advantages. Ultimately we just require our players to become more accustomed with each other in the present system while allowing for more roaming and positional rotation. If this is perfected hopefully we’ll be able to see the best of both worlds.

*  Many thanks to Sunny Sandhu (@Sunbeam007)

** Opta Stats (@OptaJoe)

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The 3 P’s – Part 2 (Penetration)

Part 1 (Pressing)

“It’s Gibbs on the left. He passes inside to Song who searches out Sagna with a long, raking pass out to the right. Sagna looks up and delivers a cross into the box…which is easily collected under minimal pressure by the opposition goalkeeper.”

This is a sequence of events that has been borne out many times in recent years. As good as having the majority of possession is to dictating a game it’s useless without effective penetration. As we’ve seen most recently in the North London derby we have yet again been able to rack up more than 60% possession and have still contrived to lose the game. This is partly due to our inadequacies in defence but if a team monopolises the ball so much it should not be possible to lose such a match.

Last season it was observed by many that we simply weren’t quick enough. Quick in body, not necessarily mind. Nasri would often slow our counter-attacks by taking too many touches and Arshavin developed the rather irritating ‘skill’ of stopping them dead with errant passing. Whilst in possession they would come inside into their more natural positions and try to pick a pass amongst the crowd they then found themselves in. Our summer’s recruitment was very much haphazard with countless first choice targets seemingly being missed. However, one common theme in the majority of our attacking signings was pace.

It is clear that over the last year or so Wenger has been looking to add more fleet-footed players to the squad in the hope of producing a team more proficient at the counter-attack. This can be seen in the signings of Ryo Miyaichi, Wellington Silva, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho who are more suited to being played out wide on the flanks. It is commonly stated that there is no replacement for raw pace. Yes, defenders can compensate by anticipating play well or using expert positioning. Managers can also detail a couple of players to ‘double up’ on speedy opponents. Put a quick player up against a slower player in a one-on-one situation, though, and there will be only one outcome. Put that into a match situation and it could be the equivalent of beating a fullback on the outside before putting a dangerous cross in for a teammate to finish.

As well as pace, one of the most desirable attributes of the likes of Walcott and Gervinho is their off-the-ball movement. Both were originally strikers and thus naturally show a tendency to make out-to-in runs behind the opposition defence from their respective flanks. This is in stark contrast to the movement of Arshavin and Nasri who, on the whole, preferred to come towards the ball rather than make penetrative runs which prompted these comments on Samir from Arsène last season:

“Like every player that is good on the ball he was too much attracted by the ball. We wanted him to do more runs off the ball, going in behind [the defence] without the ball because we have many players who can give him the ball.”

During our better spells last season Nasri was showing a propensity to making these types of runs but as a natural playmaker in his youth he often showed the tendency to revert to his instinctive game.

So, we now possess more pace and the ability to perform dangerous runs on a regular basis. “Brilliant!” I hear you cry, “But why are there still issues in our attacking game?” Well, Theo and Gervinho are great on the counter but can struggle at times when faced with a diligent team skilled at parking the proverbial bus. Walcott especially is often loath to try to beat his man in a one-on-one situation which is odd considering his outstanding pace. He very much prefers a safety first approach of passing back to a supporting midfielder or fullback. This in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it enables more ball circulation and less chance of him losing possession but it does detract slightly from the team’s penetrative potential.

(At this stage I feel it necessary to add that this shouldn’t be used as a stick with which to beat Theo with but is simply an observation of his skill-set in that particular position. If anything I prefer a player aware of their limitations to one who tries ridiculous tricks they are not capable of. The calls for Walcott to finally be given a run upfront in a 4-4-2, a position where he’s perhaps more suited, are increasing from both fans and Theo himself but that’s a debate for another day.)

“I could get used to this dribbling lark”

Another reason for our issues lies with the role of Robin van Persie. He is adept at playing as a ‘false 9’ and in theory his dropping deep, thus bringing a centre back with him away from their natural habitat, should create space which can be exploited by the runs of either wide man. This is where the problems begin however as this season and in the latter stages of last Robin has played much more as an orthodox no.9. This has meant he’s become less involved in our build-up play and while it has led to an increase in his goals column it has meant that the strengths of those around him aren’t necessarily being exploited as much as they could be.

Another problem is that when van Persie does occasionally drop deep we are left with the issue of supplying the ball into the space he has created. When Cesc Fàbregas departed for Barcelona in the summer it was clear that his incisive passing would be missed. This is the man who over the previous five seasons had assisted more goals than anyone in the top 5 leagues in Europe (60)*. Last season where he was blighted by injury, therefore missing several months, Cesc was still able to provide more successful through-balls than any other player in the Barclay’s Premier League (apologies, it appears I’ve contracted Coyleitis) with a total of 38*. Without him we are left with players not as prolific at finding those in attack with unerring accuracy.

Despite this change towards a more direct style of play Wenger has still expressed the need and desire to keep parts of our “tiki-taka” style. Around the end of the transfer window Arsène frequently mentioned the need of a balance between pace and technique and following the earlier signings of Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain he bought Mikel Arteta on a stressful deadline day with the reasoning that “Arteta will give us some technical security that this team needs…” Despite not seemingly being a first choice target, Mikel appears to have the necessary qualities to aid our transition in style while adding vast Premier League experience to boot.

Arsène is aiming to produce a team that can possess the technical quality to maintain possession at a high tempo over large periods of a match while still posing a threat to the opposition’s goal. Combine this with the ability to perform counter-attacks at breakneck speeds like we used to do earlier in his reign and we’re onto a real winner in an attacking sense. In theory at least, the return from injury of Wilshere and the continuing development of Aaron Ramsey should aid the former while I feel van Persie mixing up his game a bit more and allowing Gervinho et al. to gel with their fellow teammates in time should help the latter.

Whether we are able to achieve this is another matter. One can’t help feeling that a real no.10 is missing; someone who can provide that real accurate thrust in the final third. We’ve made improvements going forward this season, noticeably at left back where within the first couple of months both Gibbs and Santos have already equalled Gael Clichy’s goal tally in his entire Arsenal career. All we can do is hope that the new personnel in more advanced positions can integrate quickly and adapt to our new ‘direct’ style.

Possession is nice, penetration is even better.

*Opta Stats (@OptaJoe)

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