After all the pre-season worries and murmurs from fans, Arsenal have started the season brightly. The Gunners currently sit in 3rd place, 2 points off top and with the best goal difference in the league, helped by only conceding 1 goal so far. The new signings have bedded in with a varying degree of success; Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla have become integral parts to the side already, Olivier Giroud still needs a goal that will get the fanatical hype-driven majority of fans off his back. The defending from the entire team has improved immeasurably from last season and this has been helped by some interesting tactical changes. While all these improvements are welcome, Arsene Wenger rightly stated that the real test for his side, one that would give credit to or deny their title credentials, comes up next week against Manchester City, so now is the perfect time to take a look at how they have shaped up so far.
Against Sunderland, Arsenal lined up with 3 strikers in Podolski, Walcott and Gervinho. This failed miserably against a packed defence and the only real opening came when Giroud was introduced and used his movement to good effect. The following match against Stoke saw the basis of what seems to be the most likely formation Arsene will adopt this season. Cazorla and Giroud occupied nearly the same average position with Podolski coming central and Gervinho the most advanced. Gibbs began his progression into a wing-back and his average position is slowly creeping up as he grows into the role with more game-time.
This trend continued against Liverpool with Chamberlain replacing Gervinho and the team demonstrated its’ new tactical flexibility by seamlessly changing from 4-2-3-1 with the ball to a deep- lying 4-4-1-1 with 2 banks of four fiercely protecting the 18 yard box. The most interesting attacking change came against Southampton with Gervinho starting in the central striker role. While last season we had Robin Van Persie playing somewhat as a typical false 9, dropping deep and linking up play, Gevinho moved laterally along the back four and looked for gaps between the centre-back and their
full-backs. It worked a treat as it left the Southampton centre-backs with nothing to mark and Cazorla could drift into the vacant space with 9 penalty area entries. We’ve rarely seen such tactical flexibility for several years with Arsenal, as the team has often been built around one individual, and 3 different striking options in the first 4 games bodes well for setting up a game plan.
Wenger has often been a purveyor of Spanish tactics but with a twist that makes them adapt to the Premier League. Gervinho’s transformation into a striker is evidence of one aspect of this. Another has been the role of Arteta. Last season he was somewhere between a distributor/carrier role in a double pivot with Alex Song. This season, in the first 3 games, he was the furthest back midfielder. It is important to note he is not playing as a defensive midfielder in the traditional ‘Makelele’ way, but as a single pivot in the style of Xabi Alonso. He tackles well and collects the ball from the back four, distributing it to the wings or Diaby alongside him. Diaby has acted as a carrier, marauding forward with the ball and getting in and around the box.
Against Southampton, we saw Alex Song’s replacement Francis Coquelin and how he fits into the team. With Arteta they reverted to the double pivot of last season and Arsenal reaped the benefits of Arteta being allowed forward. Coquelin looked technically adept but still has some work to do in his awareness and strength. He was dispossessed 4 times but completed 92% of his passes showing a great maturity in his passing range. His style is potentially the future of the defensive midfield role as top teams can no longer afford to have a player who can only tackle and pass to his nearest team-mate (see Man City getting rid of Nigel De Jong), but now need a player with vision and ability to join attacks. I’ll look at Cazorla in the key players section further down, but this article by Gingers4Limpar is a joy to read on how the little Spaniard has changed our formation and Arsene’s way of thinking.
The defence has had the most marked improvement upon last season. Having only conceded 1 goal in 4 games and with that goal being a clanger by Wojciech Szczesny, the defence can be very proud of their performance so far. As well as the wingers tracking back a lot more than last season to protect Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson and Mikel Arteta providing more protection than Alex Song was capable of, the defence has looked to adapt their way of defending to frustrate the opposition. Against Stoke, the team were happy to let Crouch win headers as long as someone picked up on the second ball and they also pushed Stoke attacks through the middle, denying space on the wings. Against Liverpool they did the complete opposite, defending narrow and getting bodies around the box, forcing them out wide to attempt crosses. Against Southampton, I haven’t seen our defence sit that deep in years and it frustrated the Saints on the rare occasion they got forward. The lower percentages in possession (50% against Southampton) is a pleasure as it shows the team have become more ruthless when they have the ball and more comfortable without it. In previous seasons we looked jittery and liable to conceding a goal every time we lost possession, now we are comfortable letting the opposition pass it across their back four.
Next Page: Key Players – Vermaelen, Arteta & Cazorla assessed…
Vermaelen came in for a lot of criticism towards the end of last season and rightly so. He made numerous errors and was often caught out of position as he joined attacks without being vocal enough to alert the rest of the team (or Alex Song didn’t listen which is quite likely). So far this season he has reigned in his attacking instincts, venturing to the half-way line then like a scolded child retreating back alongside Mertesacker. In fact the one occasion he did venture forward against Southampton came when the team were 5-1 up, showing a new maturity and understanding of the team from the Belgian. As you can see in the picture towards the start of this article, he has been entrusted with a lot of area to cover with Kieran Gibbs venturing forward. He has done this maginificently; winning all of his 9 tackles, making 13 interceptions and 2 last man tackles. He has only lost possession 3 times so far and with an 88% passing accuracy his use of the ball has looked a lot wiser than last season. With Wenger making Vermaelen the new captain he is effectively undroppable from the defence, but if his form and leadership of the team continue, I can see know reason why he should be.
Since signing for Arsenal, I would say every bit of work I’ve done for this site could have focused on Arteta if I didn’t consciously avoid analysing him. He’s a dream player for stat freaks, but more importantly, a dream player for this Arsenal side. His movement to deep-lying playmaker last season was a surprise enough after it was assumed he was signed to replace Fabregas, but his movement even further back to become a single pivot in the 3-man midfield has been an incredible move by Arsene so far. He’s 3rd in our top stats area for total tackles with 19, in 4 games, a remarkable statistic along with 12 interceptions. He has already proved he can provide more protection for the back four than Alex Song could and the removal of a double pivot means that an understanding isn’t required, Arteta knows his role and he will perform it, brilliantly I might add. If his defensive statistics weren’t impressive enough, his passing form from last season has continued. In 4 games he has only lost possession once and has completed 93% of his passes, coming 2nd in the top stats zone for number of passes with 378. He has been excellent at receiving the ball from the back four and distributing it to the team, completing 25/27 long balls, the same number as Paul Scholes in 3 attempts less. He has quickly become a fan favorite and one of the first names on the team sheet, demonstrated by his promotion to vice-captain after one season. The big fear for any Arsenal fan is if the Spaniard suffers an injury, no one player is capable of replacing him and we may see a change of system if that occurs.
The other Spaniard in the side, former Malaga player Santi Cazorla, adapted to life in the Premier League after 5 minutes against Sunderland and has been pulling the strings ever since. In just 4 games he has risen through the creativity charts and if we discount chances created from a set play he would be top with 14 chances created to Aaron Lennon’s 12. He creates a chance from open play every 25 minutes and has already bagged 2 assists and a goal. He isn’t all flash either, coming in the top 25 players for ground duels with 36 along with 8 tackles and 5 interceptions. With 133 final third passes and a massive accuracy of 86% for these passes, Cazorla has also made more than any other Premiership player and is third for total passes completed with 321. He has acted almost as a second striker in games so far, ensuring the striker hasn’t been left alone when the ball works its way up to him and is in charge of pressing the opposition defence. At £12 million, Cazorla will prove himself to be the signing of the summer. Listening to the crowd reaction at the Emirates every time he got the ball was magic to hear and we haven’t seen a midfield player with this ability since Fabregas. David Silva and Juan Mata both struggled after Christmas in their first seasons without a winter break so hopefully Wenger has noticed this and uses our own magic Spaniard sparingly.
It’s hard to pick a key player where goals will come from as it is taking time for Olivier Giroud to settle, but Lukas Podolski has already gone a long way to allay fears about his second move to a big club. The German is a workhorse and hopefully Wenger has realised his best position is on the left-wing, cutting inside and linking with Cazorla. With 100% passing accuracy against Southampton, it’s clear his understanding with the team is growing and hopefully he can push on and grab more goals. It looks to be a promising season for the Gunners and they look to have emerged from the shadow of Van Persie, but things can change quickly in football and a positive result against Man City would do a lot to boost the respect that this side commands. With the likes of Sagna, Koscielny and most importantly Jack Wilshere to make a return to the first team, this is the first Arsenal squad in quite a while that has serious quality in-depth and this could become a massive asset in the quest for a trophy.
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