It’s an uneasy time for Arsenal fans. The adage of “Arsene knows…” is more frequently heard in a mocking tone these days, certainly the British media are questioning whether Wenger has taken Arsenal as far as he can. 7 years without a trophy might just about be tolerated, but failure to qualify for the big money Champions League might not be. Especially if one of the teams replacing them in the top four is local rivals Tottenham. Spurs are 10 points ahead of Arsenal going into this weekend’s game, and a win would leave Arsenal needing to claw back 13 points from only 12 remaining games.
Football clubs fortunes rise and fall, that is the history of the game and that will be the future. All great teams get old, get broken up and fade. Perhaps Wenger should be given credit for making Arsenal’s demise a slow one? This season could be a tipping point though, the to four is no longer the closed shop it seemed to be for some many years. Goodwill is starting to run out for Wenger.
The timing of the game couldn’t be far worse for Arsenal. Ignominious defeats against Sunderland and AC Milan in their last two games, coupled with a defensive injury crisis leaves them vulnerable. Squillaci, Colquelin, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Jenkinson and Santos all look set to miss out – Djourou and Vermaelen are their only fit centre-backs and Gibbs and Sagna pick themselves through lack of healthy competition. Tottenham, in comparison, are sweating on only a few injury doubts. Assou-Ekotto and Adebayor are in training but might not make the team, but the player Harry is most keen to scrawl on a team sheet is Rafael Van der Vaart, although he might just use initials or a little drawing of something.
To put it simply, Van der Vaart loves playing Arsenal – and not just in the lilywhite jersey of Tottenham, he scored against them for Hamburg too! The first time he faced them in the Premier League was 20th November 2010, Van der Vaart scored one and set up the other two in a landmark 3-2 victory at the Emirates, and in Tottenham’s home fixture he scored two himself. This season Rafael has continued in rock-steady form by hitting the first in yet another Spurs victory, this time 2-1.
There a slight sense of diminishing returns for Van der Vaart, the first time he played a North London derby he was involved in three goals, the next time two, the most recent time just one. But at least he was involved! Will Arsenal be able to shut him down completely this time? It’s doubtful.
The way the two teams line up might look very different on paper: Arsenal still pursuing a Barcelona style 4-1-2-2-1 with a midfield anchor, two passing players (Normally Ramsey and Arteta) two wide men and Van Persie their own Dutch master at the focus. Tottenham have tended to line up in big games with a 4-4-1-1 formation, the midfield consisting of a creator, a destroyer, two wingers and Van der Vaart playing as a link man between midfield and attack, sometimes as advanced as a second striker. The main difference between them is how advanced the wingers are, and the positioning of the third central midfielder. For Arsenal, more of the impetus will lie on Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain/Gervinho; and for Tottenham Van der Vaart will be the one looking for goals or assists rather than involving himself with deeper build-up play.
Perhaps the most important contests of the day will take place in this central area. Parker and Song will both be trying to stifle the 2 creative players from the opposing team. This is where Van der Vaart’s positioning will be important. If he’s too advanced, Parker and Modric will be outnumbered by Arteta, Rosicky and Song. If he’s too deep he won’t be link so well with Adebayor (If the big man is fit to play). It must be said though, that if things get a bit tasty in the middle, most people’s money would be on the Spurs players getting the better of any physical battles, and winning this particular area of the pitch.
The first two players included in this table are the enforcers of their team’s midfield. Song and Parker are the ball winners who then feed ball to more creative colleagues. Interestingly, Parker is outshone (thought not to a huge degree) by song in all but one of these key midfield areas: Tackle success rate; ground duel success rate, balls won in the middle 3rd of the pitch; interceptions; then finally pass completion rate.
Modric is displayed in the table in the middle of Rosicky and Arteta. In fact, progressing down the table, thep layers are found in more advanced positions (Save for Ramsey.) The indicators than Van der Vaart is playing in a more advanced role than the other midfielders is fewer interceptions and balls won in midfield – he’s not in the thick of it. Ramsey has been included in this table to give an idea of what Arsenal are missing in midfield through his absence. Strangely, for a player considered as quite combative, Ramsey comes out rather poorly in tackling and ground duel statistics, exactly where he would be expected to outgun Arteta. What the statistics reveal, in fact, is that Ramsey is playing in a more advanced position than Arteta, which was not expected when Fabregas was replaced. Ramsey has assisted 4 goals this season, compared to just one for Arteta – but Walcott’s figure of 7 again signifies where the attacking impetus is for Arsenal – on the wings. Rosicky is the most likely to benefit from Ramsey’s absence, allowing Arteta to play as the most advanced central midfielder.
Arsenal’s pace on the wings is matched if not even bettered by Tottenham’s full-backs. But with Tottenham in attack, there’s not many full backs in the world who can get close to Gareth Bale or Aaron Lennon in a straight race. It’s a player not known for particular pace who may well decide this game. Van der Vaart will look to position himself far enough away from the central midfield maelstrom so as not to get sucked into it, but close enough to provide an easy outlet for Modric and Parker. By occupying the space between Arsenal’s defence and midfield, Van der Vaart will look to get the ball in little pockets of space, turn and either find Adebayor or one of the flanks. If Song is tasked with keeping Van der Vaart quiet, this leaves Modric to advance with the ball, but if one of the central defenders follows him deep, this will create very tempting gaps for Bale and Lennon to exploit. Bale in particular will look to get in-between Sagna and Djourou.
Expect Van der Vaart to add to his tally of goals or assists, and Wenger’s troubles to continue.