The Wing Wizards of Arsenal

The Wing Wizards of Arsenal

The one thing you have to give to Arsenal FC is that they never fail to entertain. They dragged themselves back into the race for the top 4, indeed some said even the title race, by snatching late points in matches where they weren’t quite at their flowing best. Only because of their spirit and never say die attitude. It was the kind of stuff that Ferguson’s United are known for! But when they finally got into a position to capitalize, it just wouldn’t happen. An unfortunate loss against oil giants (sorry, football club) City meant three points were dropped, and on Tuesday they drew against Wolves in a match they should have won 3/4-1. Hennessey, the Wolves keeper, was the hero of the day. And so Arsenal sit in fifth.

The way they play the game has changed, and that is obvious to the seasoned Premier League fan. But how exactly have they gone from a “pass-pass-pass” Barcelona-Lite, to a more direct, brand new Arsenal? An earlier article on this site (you can read it here *add hyperlink*) analyzed how exactly Arsenal’s central midfield transformed from last season. The natural talents of Cesc, Samir and Jack were replaced, and I argued that Arsenal had tweaked their attacking philosophy so that wingers were involved a lot more in the play.

However, that article was about central midfield. Do the statistics for wingers suggest the same? Let us take a look.

Last season, the two wingers employed when the squad was fully fit were Nasri and Walcott. This season, Gervinho has essentially replaced Nasri on the left wing, and yet they are very different players. Walcott too seems to be relishing in his role this season, and has developed a much talked about partnership with his captain.

Nasri is a passer. He frequently claimed that he wanted to play in a more central role at Arsenal, but with Cesc around, that wasn’t very likely to happen. Here are his statistics. What makes the two easier to compare is the fact that Gervinho, at this point, has played almost exactly half as much as Nasri – 14 appearances to Nasri’s 28, 1162 minutes on the pitch compared to Nasri’s 2391.

Defensively, I found that they were very similar, which is why I haven’t included those numbers. A quick note though – Gervinho has attempted 12 tackles, and ALL of them have been successful. That is pretty remarkable, and it proves that when he tracks back, he is super efficient.

As one looks at the numbers, one can clearly see that Nasri is a passer. He made an incredible 1658 passes in 31 appearances, compared to just 440 in 15 appearances for Gervinho. This tells us two things. One is that Nasri is someone who likes to pass and move, much like the Arsenal of old. Gervinho, on the other hand, likes to keep the ball. His style is much more direct.

Nasri was involved a lot more in team play, cutting inside way more than Gervinho does. The key for any wide man, however, has to be the number of goals he was involved in, and in this, Gervinho is quite clearly the winner. He has been directly involved in 9 goals, while Nasri was involved in a total of 11 goals through the entire season. There is no doubting, then, that the role of the winger has gained an added importance this season. As it turns out, Gervinho is NOT a like for like replacement for Nasri. In fact, they are very different players, as evidenced by their statistics.

Theo Walcott, the boy wonder who has been famously derided (wrongly, in my honest, humble opinion) for lacking a football brain, makes a very interesting comparative study. The Theo Walcott of last season and this are different, and yet similar!

Here are the statistics:

A cursory glance would lead one to believe that the two Walcotts are almost the same. Defensively, they really are, which is why I chose not to include the numbers yet again. In attack, however…

The most important number is the number of passes he has attempted – 453 already this season compared to 550 throughout 2010/11. This means he gets the ball a lot more, and has more time on the ball than he did last season. Nasri’s passing numbers were explained by the simple fact that he was, well, a passer. That’s what he did. Walcott never really has been one (not when compared to Cesc and Samir anyway), and so one can claim that he is involved more in the play this season.

Another important figure is the successful dribbles per game, which has gone up from 1.18 last season to 1.35 so far this season. Walcott has improved as a player himself, and this improvement in his ability to beat a man helps his game a lot. The best example is his assist against Norwich for Arsenal’s first goal to make it 1-1. He tapped the ball one side, and went the other way, and then cut the ball in for van Persie to finish. His feet, it seems, have finally caught up to his brain.

Where he has dropped from last season is obvious – number of goals scored. He has scored only two this season, while last season he ended up scoring nine. Considering we are halfway through, that doesn’t look very good. However, I feel that might be because he doesn’t cut in so often this season, and crosses a lot more. He has put in 10 accurate crosses already this season, compared to a total of 11 last season. Clearly, he has developed his game in that aspect. Theo is a hard worker, and this season we can see the efforts paying off. He was missed against Wolves, where Arsenal lacked the pace that he brings to Arsenal’s attack.

So there we are. As the statistics prove, Arsenal have indeed started relying more on their wingers, and they haven’t failed to deliver. Especially with the best striker in the world right now to finish the chances they create, Arsenal look lethal. They have a new dimension, and they are exploiting that. Teams have struggled to come up with a tactic to stop Arsenal in the past few months precisely because of this change in style.

It will be very interesting to see if they stick with this in the coming months, or if the tactics change a little with the return of Wilshere. I guess a lot depends on the winter transfer window as well!

Whatever the case, it is a fact that Arsenal have had to adjust to the departure of some of their key men, and they have. It took a little while, but now they have their system figured out. One just hopes it lasts! Surely, the new year will bring with it new hope, and will lead them, as ever, Forward!