Ten conclusions to make from Arsenal’s season 2010/2011
1. Mental fragility cost Arsenal the season
There is a valid assertion that with the youth policy, certain characteristics – in some cases, the key characteristics that make up the anatomy of a successful football club – have had to be exaggerated and the others, harder to reproduce. Indeed, the most attractive qualities of Arsenal since the beginning of Arséne Wenger’s reign – the youth, fluidity, intelligence, pace and confidence in possession – have effectively taken over the team. And the other traits – those that made the Invicibles great – the resilience, know-how, power, ruthlessness and organisation – have – not necessarily been seen as an afterthought but – expected to be acquired through time.
Would a trophy have accelerated that growth or was Arséne Wenger banking on the ever-dwindling concept of loyalty to bring experience? If he was hoping that the Carling Cup would fuel the hunger for more silverware, then that plan unravelled quickly in the sand. The defeat proceeded to drain any confidence out of the side; very important because Arsenal’s confidence comes from the way they beat teams. The decline was terminal as The Gunners won only 3 of their last 14 matches in all competitions after they lost to Birmingham but the fragile mentality was evident in some games before then; the 3-2 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur and the draw at Newcastle United encapsulated their inexplicable nervousness.
How, though, to cultivate mental toughness is difficult to underpin. Emmanuel Adebayor says that under Jose Mourinho, Arsenal would never have lost that final because he readies teams as if they are going out for war. Wenger, on the other hand, caters for players finding solutions naturally. Indeed, it is thought that with attributes that Wenger holds so dear – technique, pace, skill, creativity etc. – victory should come naturally: as a direct consequence of their supposed superiority. As a result, losing is not contemplated so it catches everyone by surprise; leaving them almost dumbfounded. Uncertainty invades the group, resulting in a collective trauma of which there is no fallback position of which to regroup. Unless, of course, they are winning convincingly again.
Experienced signings may give Arsenal an inspiring presence to lift them but the real damage goes back to the fact that youngsters were left to mature without the assuring presence of big name players. And that remains the greatest flaw of Wenger’s youth development project.
Wenger: “We have learned that we have the quality, despite what everybody is saying, but of course we need to gain some strength in some areas of the team. Mentally of course I hope that the team has learned a lot this season because we could not cope with the number of games nor the pressure in the important moments of the season. I felt they lost confidence and you can see that there has not been the same sharpness on the mental front.”
2. Samir Nasri must be tie-down to a contract very quickly
This may have been a season in which Arsenal have been frustrated by familiar problems buy they may have, at least, found a solution to an ever more impending one. There are, however, two stipulations; the first, is that they have to tie Samir Nasri down to a long-term contract and the second is actually, the Frenchman’s best performances haven’t come in the role Cesc Fábregas has made more than his own. Nasri has, of course, deputised in the middle when his skipper has been absent but while his play has been neat, he has lacked a bit of the sharpness that Fábregas has. Nevertheless, Nasri has progressed enough this season to show that he has the array of skills to be deadly for Arsenal for years to come.
His best showings have been on the right, where he scored the bulk of his 14 goals this season but his displays on the left have been quietly impressive too. After Walcott’s injury, he managed to replicate his directness in his own way, taking on defenders – not with his speed although he is deceptively fast – but through swivels, twists and turns aplenty. Two goals against Fulham were his highlights but by constantly being a threat to defences behind, Nasri has given Arsenal a variety they had once lacked. He had less of a direct impact on the left but he still developed a great partnership with Robin van Persie and Fábregas and helps share some of the workload. It will be Wenger’s job to convince Samir Nasri that he’s central to Arsenal’s plans, whether he plays in the middle or not.
“I don’t care if I play on the right or on the left,” remarked Samir Nasri. “I am used to it, I score goals and I am more efficient when I play on the wing.” And certainly, that appears to be true as most of Nasri’s goals came in the early part of the season starting from the right and generally have two features: his movement to get behind and his impudent dribbling.
3. Promotion from within has been the big success
With all the talk about spending big in the summer, it must also be remembered that there is a balance to be achieved between transfers and giving a chance for youngsters to progress. Barcelona have shown the importance of that by featuring seven players in the line-up that won Spain the World Cup (although it does include a £40million pound striker as well). The strategy to promote youth is also a smart piece of management by the Catalan Club, writes The Economist because it helps cultivate a “two-way relationship with its fans” and certainly, with the rising ticket prices alienating Gooners, the presence of home-grown players and local boys may help bridge the gap somewhat.
Jack Wilshere represents the first home-grown star of Wenger’s youth policy and this season, he has made himself crucial in the double-pivot role. His rapid “change-of-direction” and glide on the ball represents the new Arsenal, one that is all about dynamism with possession. Wilshere has usurped Aaron Ramsey for the central midfield spot but the Welshman has come-back from injury well to realistically challenge for a key role next season while Kieran Gibbs, another player who has also been unlucky with injuries, may have been a genuine contender for a starting place. Wojciech Szczęsny is perhaps the biggest surprise but for fans, he fills a position which has been the problem for a long time while Johan Djourou has been impressive enough to be Thomas Vermaelen’s likely partner next season. This season may be noted for one which Arsenal have been frustrated by familiar problems but more importantly, it may go down as one where the spine for Arsenal teams for years to come has been established.
4. Robin van Persie hasn’t been backed up by his team-mates
It’s a phenomenal record – or at least if you discount the goalscoring feats of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet even that doesn’t take away from the astonishing return Robin van Persie has produced for Arsenal this season. His goal against Fulham was his 22nd in all competitions, 21 of those coming after January and 18 of them in the Premiership. His 9 in successive away games is a league record and before they had played their final game of the season, van Persie had scored the same amount as the whole Blackburn team this year.
However, reading over his figures leaves an irrevocable feeling of “what could have been?” Had the Dutchman been fit for the whole season, maybe Arsenal may have ended the campaign with at least one trophy. Certainly, him hobbling off in the Carling Cup final is seemingly symbolic of his luck. But the biggest frustration is that his goals have meant little to achieving Arsenal’s outcome. When it mattered, Arsenal as a unit, wilted and if anything the reliance on van Persie has been too great.
There’s an argument that van Persie has actually been Arsenal’s problem; that his style doesn’t suit the overall approach of The Gunners but that assertion doesn’t hold up very strongly when you consider Arsenal was at their best from mid-December to late February. And van Persie was crucial during that. Marouanne Chamakh did an admirable job in the first half of the season, so much so, that his achievements deserve greater recognition. His style is more focused on the short, laying balls on to his team-mates while van Persie’s is more direct, more about creating angles and playing people in. The truth is, though, Arsenal have regressed as a unit since then; their fluency has waned, confidence has all been sapped and the boundless energy they displayed in the middle part of the season, non-existent. Robin van Persie was left with a thankless task which ended up just that….
5. Cesc Fábregas is king…still
Some would argue that it is unhealthy for a team to rely on one individual as the Arsenal side does on Cesc Fabregas. Even if that player is jaw-droppingly good that he wins matches for you. But that is the case with Fábregas and yes, you’re probably right, it is becoming unhealthy for the club to do so.
However, Arsenal have just been unable to take the load of him and the manager has even commented recently that the burden of captaincy may have been too much. More than in recent seasons, though, the workload has been shared with Robin van Persie more hands-on than before and if anything, there is now a certain 11 which Arsenal rely heavily upon.
But Fábregas has still been crucial, making 15 assists and 12 key passes (those that lead to goals but are not final passes) and scoring 9 goals. He is more robust now and direct – as shown by his impact in the 2010 World Cup finals and Euro 2008, regularly coming off the bench to change his country’s flow from the lateral to the dynamic. His presence in the team does the same for Arsenal although he has only played 22 of the 38 league games this season and Wenger banks on using him much more next season. A rest and a quiet summer is what he deserves.
Wenger: “I believe that Cesc Fábregas has played 22 games this season out 38 and we expect him next season to play between 30 and 38 and that will make a huge difference to our efficiency.”
6. Defensive efficiency still eludes Arsenal
It had all started so well for The Gunners. As strategies go, this was the most robust of plans for Arsenal defensively as they’ve ever had. The mantra was all about winning the ball back quickly; there was a double pivot to help cover zones and Arsenal were to press using the Dutch Principles of “through-marking.” And bar a couple of hiccups early on where they were just adjusting, it was working terrifically. The unit was compact; they pressed as a team and generally stayed focused until the 90th minute.
The key statistic, however, is that Arsenal have conceded 22 of their goals from set-pieces one way or another and 20 from open-play. It doesn’t take a genius to realise where the main problem lies and that actually, some of Arsenal’s supposed defensive frailties are somewhat exaggerated. Certainly, from aerial balls, you can question the bravery and anticipation. I would suggest zonal-marking from corner-kicks as a possible solution as it strips the defenders of the distracting jockeying for position and allows them to concentrate on getting the ball first.
The statistic also suggests that Arsenal’s attack is their defence and by attacking well, it limits the pressure on the back four. This doesn’t necessarily mean goals as possession actually means you require more chances to score; but rather, in territorial advantage. Arsenal’s style is that by playing with such an expansive style and committing resources forward, they invariably concede chances that are of a higher quality as they mainly come from counter-attacks and one-on-ones, where there are fewer men back and therefore lots of space to cover. They have no choice but to be more voracious and it is probably apparent, that in their last 14 games, their impotency and the ineffectiveness of the pressing from the front, put undue pressure on their back. Attack and defence is known to be mutually exclusive but for Arsenal, they couldn’t be more dependent.
Wenger: “[We lack] efficiency, defensive efficiency. When you look at the recent history in the last three of four months, the way we lost in the Carling Cup Final [and] against Liverpool, we dropped points at Bolton in the last minute; of course I feel the nerves played a part, more than the talent in the fact that we didn’t win the Championship.”
Vermaelen: “There is always talk about Arsenal’s back four, but defending is about teamwork as well as individuals and goals are often down to a number of things rather than defenders’ mistakes.”
7. Arsenal finally have a goalkeeper
Wojciech Szczęsny began the season as fourth choice goalkeeper but in a manner that typifies his character, bullied his way to the front. An honest and frank interview with a Polish newspaper outlined his ambition and not before long, he was installed as No. 1 profiting also from injuries to his competitors. For his Polish counterpart, Łukasz Fabiański, it’s a tad unlucky that he isn’t the incumbent of the goalkeeping position as his performances have arguably been just as impressive but Szczęsny sticks in the mind as he is more assertive. His game also belies his boisterous self as he is more cautious than Fabiański, preferring to analyse the situation before committing while Fabiański likes nothing better than to attack the ball. His normal standpoint is three yards off his line but that means his game is splayed with risks. For most fans, however, Szczęsny brings an aura, a self-confidence and command that Arsenal haven’t had and for that reason, he is a proper goalkeeper.
8. The Gunners have developed a superiority complex
It was widely catalogued before this season, the abysmal record Arsenal had against both Manchester United and Chelsea; 9 out of 10 losses since 2009. And sure enough, the first two games against the clubs ended in familiar fashion. However, The Gunners top the mini-league between the top-four last season this campaign and if you add Manchester City and Liverpool to the mix, come a respectable third. Yet, the matches that have come to cost Arsenal are at the ones against teams from 10th and below. In games both home and away against those clubs, Arsenal have drawn 6 and lost 4. They’ve won 12 of the rest, which perhaps isn’t an atypical record this season considering the topsy-turvy nature of the league but they did have particular trouble winning at home, drawing two games 0-0 and losing three at The Emirates against teams between 11th and 15th. Arsenal have to rediscover how to defeat the bus again because it’s a problem that has once again reared its ugly head.
9. Arsenal were the best team from mid-December to late February
The best part of two months. It seems a meagre thing to hold on to but among the hubbub of calls to make big changes to the side, it is understandable Wenger wants to hold on to what has been good about Arsenal. And certainly, the matches between the 3-1 win over Chelsea and the Barcelona victory at home, had been very good. The best in fact. Chelsea were at their peak in early season but never recovered fully while Manchester United were at their best in the last three months of the season- coincidentally, when Arsenal began to crumble – but were still humbled by Arsenal. In the period, Arsenal played a dynamic and integrated brand of football which they haven’t been able to match. And no-one else for that matter as well. Shame it collapsed so spectacularly.
Wenger: “You never want to forget anything because it is, as well, the season that we produced our best games ever – but in the end it was difficult to get over the line.”
10. The 4-3-3 remains the way forward
The idea of a Plan B appeals even more if only because of Arsenal’s troubles scoring at home. A 4-4-2 can be a viable option at The Emirates against lesser sides as Laurent Blanc did with Bordeaux (the side which Chamakh played before he signed) but it can look increasingly outdated in bigger matches. The 4-3-3 offers Arsenal more flexibility, especially in terms of the middle of the pitch where Fábregas can often make a triple pivot or push up higher to play as the second-striker. The 4-3-3 also offers more angles and is more suited to the players: van Persie is not a number 10, more a nine-and-a-half while Theo Walcott is still not a striker but a wide forward. As ever with formations, though, they are neutral and rather, it’s the application that decides their failures and success. It will be a pivotal season next season and the players will have to be more accountable to the failures and successes of Arsenal Football Club.
Filed under: Arsenal
Tagged: 2010/11, 4-3-3, Analysis, Arsène Wenger, Defenders, Fabregas, Formation, Goalkeepers, Midfielders, Movement, Nasri, Passing, Pressing, Review of the Season, Strikers, Tactics, Van Persie, Walcott, Wilshere
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