The Arsenal Column

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

Robin van Persie continues to get the best out of his team-mates

The win may not be as celebrated as others that have come before it but it serves to highlight Arsenal’s continued growth if not for the fact they also close the gap on Manchester United’s lead. Last season, The Gunners succumbed a two-goal lead to eventually draw; here they took advantage with some neat interplay – albeit against a weak and even more weakened West Ham team due to the absence of Scott Parker and any full-backs – to comfortably win 3-0.

Victory asserts Arsenal’s title winning credentials, especially with the speed and accuracy that they passed the ball around their opponent’s penalty area while West Ham, on the other hand, sink ever more closer to the mire and are in such a position because they are woeful at the back. Which begs the question – could the same Arsenal teams that drew and lost against Leeds United and Ipswich Town respectively have won here? Given that they [front three of Bendtner, Chamakh and Arshavin] were so functional up front, the answer is not altogether obvious however it is evident that Arsenal are a much better side with Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie playing and as such, players like Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere are able to raise their game. From a defensive point of view, Arsenal were initially posed some problems by West Ham but alleviated any danger through more ruthless forward play. The two goals, this time round, was enough to kill off the game and sap The Hammer’s energy thus making the second-half a simple finishing job.

Robin van Persie the “hybrid” striker

Typically, this would have been a match where Arsenal are made to work for their win but their opponents were so average at the back, failing to deal with the most rudimentary of movements, that their technical superiority was able to come out on top. Arsenal’s manipulation of space and creation of triangles evoked similarities between their 3-0 defeat of Birmingham City only a few weeks earlier and a lot boiled down to the personnel on show. Arsène Wenger was able to select what must be considered his best starting eleven and with Robin van Persie back in the side, Arsenal look a more fluid unit.

Van Persie’s success has been down to the way he balances the central striker role  – knowing when to go behind and when to hold the ball up – allowing his team-mates to play around his movement and attack with unpredictability. Because West Ham defended deep, we were not as much able to see his “false nine” tendencies but what was perhaps most encouraging was his running across the channels as an orthodox striker. Arsenal have, at times, been said to be too elaborate; more complicated than they should be but his working of the two centre-backs – James Tomkins and Matthew Upson – made it difficult for them to mark him. Van Persie constantly looked to play in the channels between the full-back and defence and that stretched West Ham’s back line. Wayne Bridge in particular had difficulty holding his position as left-back and the need to tuck in while Walcott’s presence as an outside forward made the task all the more trickier. This type of tireless horizontal movement is what helped Wayne Rooney deliver his 34 goals last season and in an analysis for Match of the Day, Alan Hansen criticised Dimitar Berbatov’s static movement against Chelsea for failing to break them down. As it was, Federico Macheda’s introduction helped got a goal back although they still lost 2-1. Berbatov’s improved performances this season is maybe because he is better understanding the demands of the main striker although there is still a niggling doubt whether he can as effective without a runner. Van Persie’s success as the runner is perhaps dispalyed by his statistics last year at the World Cup, where, even for a over-cautious Holland side, he was fourth on the list for chances created (every 37 minutes). Perhaps a direct threat would have given the Dutch more goals but they went for a team approach for which van Persie was seen as crucial. The numbers are even better for his impact last season in the Premiership, making a chance every 30.6 minutes – the third highest in the league.

<Figure 1>van Persie’s movement across the channels helped drag the defenders across, creating space for others. For Theo Walcotts’ goal, van Persie siezed upon the space afforded by Tomkins challenging Fabregas to set up the England winger. The Dutch striker continued working the West Ham defenders all game by running the channels high up the pitch and mixing it by dropping deep.

<Figure 2>Van Persie showed his ability to roam as false nine, creating space in front of him. The West Ham central defenders are forced to mark space and are at a threat of late movement from one of Arsenal’s offensive players. Here, Samir Nasri aims takes advantage of the space vacated by van Persie and Tomkins’ uncertainty to make a run beyond the backline (which was unfortunately offside). False nine movement is hard to counter as defenders hate marking space and by dropping deep, van Persie forces the defensive line to push up. Marouane Chamakh did similarly for Arsenal earlier this season in the 4-1 win against Bolton as their 24 pass move found Carlos Vela as the defence attempted to squeeze the space. The question then becomes should the defence push up or stay deep? Should they go with the unconventional or stick to the textbook? Arsenal tried the latter in the 2-2 draw with Barcelona last season after half-time and proceeded to concede two over-the-top goals to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. (Disclaimer: we are not planning to do screen capture analysis as a regular feature. But if you do look back to the archives, we did start it on the tactical blogging scene).

by Guardian Chalkboards

<Figure 3>Robin van Persie’s heatmap shows just how he tried to drag the West Ham centre-backs out of position. The striker spent a lot of his time drifting to the left flank – because of Samir Nasri’s central inclinations – to shift the defenders aside.

There is only one Song

It’s hard to forget but West Ham had a competitive first twenty-five minutes. Avram Grant’s bravery to play three forwards initially troubled the backline somewhat with Johan Djourou having to be pressed into some last minute action. His mistake from a ball down the right channel gifted Carlton Cole a chance to test Wojciech Szczęsny but blasted straight at him while Cole had another effort blocked by the head of Djourou. ESPN’s co-commentator attempted to rip into Arsenal’s centre-back duo but their vulnerability is not as much due to their individual ability but the way the team attacks. It is a balance that The Gunners needs to achieve and particularly down Emmanuel Eboue’s side did they find space. The Ivorian’s enthusiasm leaves gaps for the centre-backs to cover – in this case Djourou – while another essential component – Alex Song – was similarly pressed into action.

Song had another fantastic match, covering ground along the channels – his job more towards the right and Jack Wilshere’s along the left – and often dropped back into the back four when the ball entered Arsenal’s penalty area. Arsenal may be playing a double pivot this season but it’s obvious Song is the main holder and his authoritative style allows to match technique with aggression.


The four fixtures Robin van Persie has started since his comeback have all seen The Gunners score three goals – except for the 0-0 draw with Manchester City which serves as a blot to his style. Arsenal failed to make their early goal attempts count and that led to calls for a more direct threat. Those calls were justified as it is not always were a team can play in the same style and sometimes going gung-ho in the last minute is the best option. But as it stands, perhaps, Arsenal are better overall with van Persie’s careful balancing of the striker role despite Maroaune Chamakh’s impressive first half-season. Space is finite, and because most teams defend deep, denying space behind the backline, it means they have to concede it in front. And because of van Persie’s work – as Steve Mclaren once pointed out when analysing Roma’s 4-6-0 – allows the multitude of Arsenal’s attacking players to play around. “We have many offensive players and he gets them in well because he keeps the ball,” said Wenger. “And of course you can see now that because he has a few games he’s much sharper physically, and that is very interesting.”

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10 Responses to “Robin van Persie continues to get the best out of his team-mates”

  1. K-TR7 says:

    Fantastic article brain.i think its fair to say that rvp is the ‘messi’ equivalent of our system.since Guardiola drafted messi as a false nine we have seen the likes of pedro/iniesta score more.rvp’s link up play,hold up play and technique has made our attack,Theo van nasregas, fearsome and very cohesive.lets hope he stays fit.

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  2. K-TR7 says:

    I don’t know if im alone on this but it seems to me that nasri and fabregas almost play in tandem with each other while walcott plays further up closer to rvp making it to look like a lopsided formation.its sort of like when iniesta played on the wide for spain at the WC he was on the same band with xavi while pedro seemed further forward on the opposite wing.this makes theo more integral to the attack while nasri is more of a midfielder.this has allowed theo to play more central most of the time compared to nasri with sagna/eboue having to push up as a result to balance it out.clichy on the other hand seems more reserved.any thoughts on this?

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    Tee Song Reply:

    I agree. The formation is very much an unbalanced 4-3-3 with Theo playing high and basically on the shoulder of the last defender and also providing width. From there he can make those devastating out to in diagonal runs when RvP vacates the center. It strikes me that people don’t understand that within our system, RvP’s movement opens up space for Walcott to exploit and that space wouldn’t necessarily be there if Theo played centrally. Playing Walcott as an orthodox central striker might not bring the best out of him. Nasri, meanwhile, tucks in and can then play combinations with Cesc and RvP. Nasri also provides that direct dribbling and unpredictable play which can help unlock the most organized defenses. Everyone brings something different to the table which is why these three form our most potent forward trio. That and the fact that they’re simply outstanding players, of course.

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    The Brain Reply:

    Inherently it’s a 4-2-3-1 (or 4-3-3 which is inverted in the middle so Cesc Fabregas is at the tip of the triangle rather than a designated holder). I say this for the purpose of the defensive phase.

    But each player has a different characteristic and assignments. Wenger wants both to get behind the backline if possible – especially with the forwards movement allowing this. Nasri, however, is encouraged to use the ball more than Theo would. The combinations with RVP, Cesc, Nasri (Wilshere to a lesser degree) – as Tee Song – mentions is crucial and what will make this Arsenal side. Then there’s the presence of Song to the right, who is more defensively aware as opposed to Wilshere who is attracted to getting the ball short.

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    California Gooner Reply:

    Yes — it is a 4-3-3, but can also look like an unbalanced 4-4-2 when one of the wingers tucks in. I actually thought about this a bit after the ManU game. Park was doing the same thing Nasri is doing — tucking in– and it meant that we were outnumbered in the midfield. Nani, on the other hand, was playing high up the pitch. To do something similar, we would have to play Theo, which meant switching Nasri over to the left. Interestingly, that is what has happened. RVP playing as a false 9 is yet another way of flooding the midfield.

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  3. K-TR7 says:

    Theo is actually our CF.At the rate he is scoring he’ll end up with 20+ call Aw clueless for playing theo wide but he is actually our CF.its a genius plan but most don’t see it.he is playing like henry but from the right.when he improves his close control in tight spaces and a bit of skill he’ll be a handful.its pretty much a complete attack.

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  4. Matt says:

    Its a situation analogous to Benzema in Madrid. Both he and Van Persie are criticized unfairly for not scoring, when they bring their teammates into the offense and set the table for a more prolific scorer cutting inside (Walcott is obviously not Ronaldo level, but then, Benzema is not Van Persie level). Van Persie, when moving well, executes his role as false 9 as well as anyone bar Messi, who’s simply on another level.

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  5. Tee Song says:

    Concerning Walcott. I’m sure Theo works very hard at improving his touch and close control. But sometimes I think people don’t give him enough credit for the player he is now. He’s become a very good finisher and he uses his pace and intelligence to get himself in good positions to finish off moves, whether they’re intricate 20 pass moves or simple back to front long. Fans criticize Theo because he’s not a fantastic dribbler or passer. That misses the point. Theo’s role on the team is not to create goals, it’s to score them. And he’s just starting to learn that. Give him another couple years to improve. He’s still just 21.

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    K-TR7 Reply:

    I agree once again.theo’s role is very much like pedro’s at barca.pedro is lightning quick and thus will always provide an outlet.messi/iniesta/xavi do the creating while he and villa do the finishing.if theo stays fit i think he’ll end up as our top scorer.during the invincible days when teams couldn’t deal with bergkamp dropping deep while ljunberg made the diagonal to was devastating but a similar fashion rvp/theo axis will be a nightmare to defend against and will produce lots of goals.

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  6. dean1000 says:

    i like this great … keep up the good work .. mate …very intresting…. DO U THINK RAMSEMY CAN BRING SOMETHING BETTER TO THE TEAM ?????????

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