The Arsenal Column

Arsenal Analysis and Tactics. All views expressed are those of Pat Rice. (Disclaimer: they are actually not his words).

Alex Song typifies Arsenal spirit to help deliver their best performance yet

There was a satisfying moment in last night’s broadcast by Sky when the commentators belatedly realised the misunderstood genius of Arsène Wenger’s project. “Perhaps, that’s where Arsenal are ahead of their time,” mused co-commentator Paul Walsh when mulling over just how the mighty Blues have fallen. Indeed, Arsenal have matured – although it is accepted that there are still issues that need to be ironed out – but a core of early-to-mid-twenty players offer long-term value while under Wenger, there are always a number of youngsters waiting to take over in the wings. Chelsea, on the other hand, lacked strength in depth, and their profile driven transfer policy, focusing on the now, has slowly caught up with them. Of course, Carlo Ancelotti has recently had to contend with the departure of his assistant, Ray Wilkins, but it also shows the reliance they have on their sugar daddy, and once he decides to tighten the purse strings, the vulnerability they have.

It showed on the pitch as Arsenal played with a dizzying tempo that Chelsea had no answer to. In truth, this was perhaps the best time to play them because they were severely lacking in confidence while Arsenal were buzzing. A run of five games without a win before this defeat was the main cause of it and not having to play Manchester United the week previous, conversely didn’t help.

Arsenal’s pressing alleviates numerical disadvantage

Tactically, this was as good as Arsenal have been for two or three seasons. Arsène Wenger sent a similar team out in the summer of 2008/09 but was comprehensively batted out 4-1 by, then, Gus Hiddink’s Chelsea. However, there were some positive signs to be attained from the defeat, most obviously the 20 shots Arsenal had on goal, the relative success Theo Walcott had against Ashley Cole and the pressing up the pitch. It’s safe to say 11 shots this time round is not quite as impressive but what they lacked in quantity, they made up in efficiency as the Gunners were clinical with their three goals. The finishes came at crucial times too, as Alex Song made Arsenal’s late first-half dominance tell with a good burst and shot while Cesc Fabregas and Walcott combined for two and three respectively quickly after the break.

Arsenal’s success, however, lay in their pressing and tempo imposed on Chelsea. Alex Song typified that spirit and after a tentative first twenty minutes, he grew in stature to dominate a powerful Blues midfield. His newly-adjusted role has been deplored by some but those who do, misunderstand really, what his position entails.

Song is not anymore, the main holding midfielder but rather it has become a shared role. This means there is no need for the Cameroon midfielder to stay back at all times but he and Jack Wilshere, who was expected to be more box-to-box in his role, can delegate. Song, it turns out, is able to go forward more because of Wilshere natural attraction to the ball from deep but nevertheless, it means Song can press higher up the pitch. Wenger remains open to the idea it can leave the team open more but if it works, as it did against Chelsea, it can be mightily effective. His burst is also a dangerous weapon and with Robin van Persie playing a role that can bring midfielders in, makes it hard for defenders to mark.

“The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

Arsenal had problems imposing themselves with the same style earlier in the season against Chelsea and looking back, it is hard to believe this is the same swaggering side that beat the Gunners 2-0 at Stamford Bridge. That time, Chelsea’s 4-3-3 was able to outnumber and create triangles around Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 but partly maybe due to short fitness levels of Frank Lampard and Michael Essien but mainly because of the Gunner’s intensity, were unable to make their man advantage count. Wenger’s side hassled Jon Obi Mikel and pressed him for time on the ball to the point that his existence in the ball circulation role was thought redundant. It continued in the second-half and earned Arsenal the two goals through closing down high up the pitch although Mikel was off by then; perhaps a tactical blunder because the centre-backs lacked an out ball while Essien is unsuited to the deep-playmaker/centre-half role.

“We were concentrating on the defensive of the game today. Everyone pressed. It was so good to see,” Walcott told Sky Sports. “Not just the starters, but the players who came on as well. They pressed and we didn’t give Chelsea space at all. We did that throughout the 90 minutes. I think everything went well for us. We made Chelsea look average at times. We played some great football and not just the pressing. It was fantastic to see.”

Cesc Fabregas’ presence was a calming influence and unlike against Tottenham where he tried to be two places at once, here he dropped back to collect the ball if needed and perfectly orchestrated the tempo of Arsenal’s play. It was the most complete Arsenal performance yet and despite conceding the slightly predictable header to Branislav Ivanovic, were just as comfortable at the back. Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny were a centre-back pairing brought forward from the future and the Swiss in particular, marshalled Didier Drogba well by dropping back to allow space to survey the threat. It is, however, by no means the start of a decline for Chelsea but rather a thirty-something identity crisis. For Arsenal, the win signalled the best years are still ahead of them.


by Guardian Chalkboards

<Figure 1> Arsenal’s pressing up the pitch is displayed by the tackles won up the pitch. The impact it had on stopping Chelsea creating triangles in the 4-3-3 is made apparent by the passing graphic which details the amount of passes in front of Arsenal. The Gunners forwards and midfield alike pressed intensly but also startegically and sensibly to stop passes getting through to Drogba.

Arsenal 3-1 Chelsea: Song 44, Fabregas 50, Walcott 53 Ivanovic 57

Filed under: Match Analysis

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17 Responses to “Alex Song typifies Arsenal spirit to help deliver their best performance yet”

  1. K-TR7 says:

    Good write up brain.I thought Aw did well tactically this time.rvp as a false nine played perfectly bar poor finishing.his movement constantly drew terry/ivanovic out of position as typified by the 2nd goal.this was massively aided by his superb hold up play especially in tight spaces.he also displayed quick feet and his link up play is a joy to watch.as a result of his work we had theo making diagonal runs into the vacated space (reminded me of bergkamp-ljunberg axis in early 00s) which were difficult to defend.cesc/song/nasri also benefitted from his movement.if he stays fit he’ll be massive for us in the squeaky bum time.

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    The Brain Reply:

    It’s very true of RVP’s importance and I’m glad Wenger played him. The manager got this one spot on regarding the tactics. RVP is an all-rounder and unorthodox compared to Chamakh; Walcott pressed and pinned back Cole all game; Kosicelny and Djourou were a modern centre-back pairing against a modern super-striker; and finally Arsenal’s structure, discipline and concentration was immense.

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  2. GoonerFox says:

    Great analysis sir, as always. I agree on every point, and you made great points. The mains ones about Song going forward to draw the opponent which gives Wilshere room for build up, Wenger’s youth policy, and the blunder of Mikel’s sub.

    I think the key aspect that won the game yesterday was getting the basics right, especially focus and discipline in the defensive duties, and being clinical in front of goal. They were our downfall against the big teams in recent years. The pressing was, as stated in the article, as best as I’ve seen Arsenal do in the last 2 seasons. Even when Chelsea started to play in the last half an hour, and there was risk of being over-numbered by their 3-man midfield, Wenger was quick to bring on Diaby for Walcott, as the former is more narrow in his game and defends more centrally. It gave Cole more space though, but it cut his main source of the ball, the middle (a very bold move by Wenger, I thought)

    Considering the quality of the performance, and the many good players we didn’t have on the pitch yesterday, I’m really starting to believe we are becoming the best team in the country. The learning process is almost over and people are starting to see glimpses of Wenger’s vision becoming realty. Martin Keown said of Wenger a few days ago: “Arsene can see whatever we can see, don’t worry about that – in fact he’s normally one step ahead” His youth policy is really starting to pay off. Even Barcelona don’t look that scary anymore, as long as our key players remain fit.

    A final lighthearted note: Wenger should include playing Fifa as part of the training regime, as it seems to increase the understanding between the boys. Walcott and Fabregas said that they play it together, and it showed on the pitch with 2 goals. But Fabianski and Koscielny clearly don’t play it together, because if they were, it would have probably been a clean sheet.

    Enjoy the win, lads!

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    The Brain Reply:

    Glad you enjoyed it (and agreed also!!) I share your optimism. Now I think we’ll see just how much the final factor has on the players which is loyalty and belonging. Some of these players have been here since the Emirates (RVP, Clichy, Fabregas, Djourou, Wilshere etc.) and have grown together. Can we convince them to stay and how big is their love?

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  3. Tee Song says:

    One thing I noticed which seemed to help the defensive balance was that the wide forwards didn’t press as high as RvP and Cesc. In previous games, they seemed to play almost in a line parallel to the central pair. This often allowed a diagonal ball to be played behind them to break the first line of defense and left Wilshere and Song to cover a lot of space (as you’ve pointed out). By staying back and then closing down the man after they’d received the pass, the pressure wasn’t as easily broken.

    I loved how balanced the midfield was. Wilshere and Cesc took it in turns to drop deep and cover Song when he burst forward. In fact they all took it in turns to drop deep and rotate making it very difficult to mark our midfielders when we had the ball and keeping us positionally strong when we lost the ball, able to win it back quickly or failing that, to defend the counter. It’s almost like we have three box to box midfielders, fully capable of interchanging roles as needs dictate.

    Finally, Djourou and Koscielny made a strong case that they should be the first choice center back pairing until Vermalean comes back. Great blog, as always.

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    The Brain Reply:

    It’s a good point. The importance of pressing from the wide forwards should not be understated but making sure it’s too high up or too deep is a balance that has a huge effect on the structure of the team. This time, Arsenal got the distances correct and that meant the two central midfielders – who normally have a lot on their plates – could cover the middle better. Cesc Fabregas was also more assured which always helps.

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  4. Opy Osegs says:

    Great article, very in-depth. You were spot on the roles. Wenger’s minor tinkering with the tactical set up of the team seems to be working wonders, such as using the natural tendencies of his deepest midfielders to great effect. Song now knows he can move around and help press more as he has a cover, in person of either Wishere (who like any good young ball playing midfielder, always wants to be close to the ball, thereby can start things up from deep) or Denilson, who can destroy any team with his ball circulation. To include the physical strength and sharp attack of Diaby brings another dimension to the midfield. Also Nasri seems to be finding more joy blurring the line between a winger and a central midfielder just as Walcott is growing into a clinical striker and the inclusion of the ever slick and mobile V. Persie or Chammakh gives him freedom to grow similar to Henry, blurring the line between a true winger (touch line hugging) and an out and out striker. The attributes of the four recognized strikers in the camp, Vela (can also play out left), Chammakh, V. Persie and Bendtner, brings a lot of attacking and tactical options. To now think of the players coming up from the academy and Ramsey…….Wenger has built Arsenal, a team that can challenge for any trophy.

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    Opy Osegs Reply:

    Not to forget the architect and orchestrator of this team, no other than Fabregas. Extra dimensions brought in through the likes of Arshavin and Risocky…..

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  5. novicehack says:

    It was a great performance. it reminded me the opening match of last season against Everton. That’s the way we need to play. Press more and we’ll win the game. VP is brilliant as false 9.

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  6. Mustafa says:

    Hi

    Just came across this site for the first time and have added it to my bookmarks – a great article! Spot on and very eloquent with presenting the alternative to the out and out defensive midfielder argument. I was thinking the same thing about whether as an attack minded team, whether a defensive midfielder is actually right as it reduces the number of men who commit to the attack.

    Lets hope that we can play the same game this evening!

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  7. Dave Myers says:

    Hi Brain,
    As ever great review, I have recently been reading a few books on tactics most notably inverting the piramid by Jonathan Wilson.
    It occured to me that we played the 4-6-0 that was suggested could be the future of modern football taken from Roma’s 4-1-5-0, as RVP is in the Totti role the false 9 and Song is not a specialist water carrier in the 2010/2011 arsenal team as his defensive duties are shared and of course he gets forward and scores goals.

    Do you think to continue with this system Arshavin would weaken the team, in that he just isnt able to put a defencive shift in?

    He would be good to bring on if we are chasing a game though I guess.

    Also thought that the inclusion of Djourou over Squil was a good move enabling us to keep a higher line and compress the space.
    Great performance, and tactically Wenger was spot on.
    Come on the gooners tonight

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    The Brain Reply:

    The 4-6-0 or a variant is particularly effective in breaking down sides although it’s not for everyone as it requires all-rounders. Even Totti, started high up the pitch but his impact lay in the way he dragged defences out and made space for others. RVP does that particularly well and has an advantage over Chamakh as he is more dynamic on the turn, getting behind. Chamakh has won a few penalties however but Wenger wants him to do it more rather than looking to lay it off for others all the time.

    Regarding Arshavin; I like him but at the same time feel it was the correct move from Wenger to drop him as his lack of defensive work can be a liability to the team. He can work well with RVP as he is given space but Walcott has done the same thus far and scored nine goals. Arsenal have always needed to squeeze the space – especially down the flanks – which Arshavin may not do. The CB pairing as op say also allows Arsenal to squeeze space up the pitch and finally the team’s tactics looked more like the one they practiced pre/early season.

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    kv Reply:

    It is funny to say Chamakh is not a false nine, in fact he drops deeper than RVP. RVP has more side ways movement and he combines better with others(Chamakh is good too, but RVP has that dynamism and spark in creating sudden combinations).
    Both are false nines, but of a different kind. You can say vanPersie is more of an advanced no.10.

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    The Brain Reply:

    Glad it has inspired you Dave. Regarding Chamakh as a false nine or indeed RVP for that matter. The term certainly has a bit of grey area about it but in simple terms a number nine is an orthodox striker – a centre-forward – so they are not traditionally expected to bring others into play. A false nine does that, even if they are the highest striker, by dropping off.

    I wouldn’t call Chamakh a false nine although he roams – it’s just an adapted centre-forward role. Likewise RVP although he has more of a case to be labelled as such as it just doesn’t seem natural of him because he’s played as a number ten all his life. I would see both of them as modern forwards who exhibit false nine tendencies. But that’s quite a mouthful and we all like to generalise.

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    Dave Myers Reply:

    thanks for the response, I must say I love this site, it is the site that has got me really intrerested in tactics, its given me a whole new perspective when I watch football now.

    Thanks again, and keep up the good work.

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    The Brain Reply:

    Glad it has inspired you Dave. Regarding Chamakh as a false nine or indeed RVP for that matter. The term certainly has a bit of grey area about it but in simple terms a number nine is an orthodox striker – a centre-forward – so they are not traditionally expected to bring others into play. A false nine does that, even if they are the highest striker, by dropping off.

    I wouldn’t call Chamakh a false nine although he roams – it’s just an adapted centre-forward role. Likewise RVP although he has more of a case to be labelled as such as it just doesn’t seem natural of him because he’s played as a number ten all his life. I would see both of them as modern forwards who exhibit false nine tendencies. But that’s quite a mouthful and we all like to generalise.

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  8. kv says:

    These are awesome times to be a gooner!
    Brain, if you remember, after the 2-0 defeat last time, we identified a lack of structure, pressing, intensity and Ashley Cole as problems. We even suggested switching Nasri to the other side and playing Arshavin against Cole. Wenger got it all right this time! The goals typify that too. For the first, you can see how high Song and Wilshere are. Second and third were a result of pressing. And RVP was amazing as the front man.

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