The Arsenal Column

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

Tomáš Rosický gives Arsenal control of their own destiny

The selection was almost un-Arsenal like. Two holding midfielders – even having factored Arséne Wenger’s loose description of the role – and two wingers, this was an Arsenal side sent out to play with the circumstances. In truth, the selection was determined more by the spate of injuries the side has suffered since the start of the season but following the departures of Cesc Fábregas and Samir Nasri, it can be no coincidence that there is a slight change of emphasis. Gone is the over-elaborate passing in the centre and more emphasis is being placed on the dynamism of the forward three.

However, after a promising start, Arsenal soon found themselves in a bit of trouble, falling behind to an Antonio Di Natale header and generally sleep-inducing with their possession. They broke well but with he proliferation of athletic players in the line-up, it meant they couldn’t pass the ball at speed and that allowed Udinese to break quickly through the gaps that were opening. Diagonals between the full-backs and centre-backs were a common occurrence and the livewire Natale eventually made Arsenal pay, heading in a Giampero Pinzi dink after peeling off Johan Djourou before the break.

Arsenal needed control, defensively yes, but also on the ball because possession is much a form of defence for The Gunners. Wenger brought on Tomáš Rosický much to ITV pundit, Gareth Southgate’s surprise who could only muster a “possibly” to Matt Smith’s interrogative questioning; “Quick one, tactical or enforced?” The introduction of the Little Mozart gave Arsenal a direction, a bit technical quality that they lacked in the first-half and a composure in possession to effectively kill the game. If Arsenal want to transplant andynamic approach this season – of which they are doing – they cannot neglect the need for technical accuracy as Wenger so often preaches and last night he would have found out just how important it is from the performance of a vintage player. ”I felt that we attacked and Udinese played on the counter-attack,” Wenger said in reference to the Rosicky substitution. “I felt that we lacked a little bit of creativity in the middle of the park and needed to be a little bit more creative. Tomas had a big influence in the second half.”

Rosický’s impact can be qualified by the statistics provided by UEFA. Although Arsenal had more possession in the first-half in terms of minutes on the ball, they held on to it longer and as a result, it let Udinese settle and then break quickly. In the second-half, however, Arsenal made 300 passes at a completion rate of 79%, a marked rise from the first period where they only made 230 passes with an accuracy of 69%. He gave the side a balance, affording Aaron Ramsey a bit of freedom to nit play higher up and allowing Alex Song to drop back to his natural position. In the first-half, Emmanuel Frimpong was at times overwhelmed by his duties as the sole holder and Song also looked uncomfortable as the shuttling central midfielder on the right. Udinese looked to free Pablo Armero and Mauricio Isla at every opportunity and Frimpong’s inexperience in the cover, not to mention the inefficiencies of Arsenal’s system, showed. The Italians fell by the wayside a bit in the second-half. There’s no doubt that the outstanding save by Wojciech Szczesny was the turning point and seemed to sap any morale out of them. However, it may also be of no coincidence that they disappeared in the last third over both legs as their style depends greatly on speed and athleticism and in the second-half, when they were asked to create, they failed to answer.

While this was a morale-boosting win for The Gunners and a great way to answer critics, there are still improvements to be made. The return of Jack Wilshere, as hinted by Rosicky’s impact, cannot come soon enough as their main source of attacks has come mainly through the wings. Gervinho was brilliant and Robin van Persie much improved but there’s still a huge reliance on the front three while their potency marks the fact that the creativity thus far from the middle has been non-existent in the three matches prior to this. Arsenal’s pressing also leaves much to be desired this season; it’s less intense and only really comes into effect in their own half. The intention is to make sure Arsenal keep a compact block when defending however the drawback to this approach is that it invites the opposition forward. Note that for Udinese’s goal, the centre-back, Mehdi Benatia is allowed to stride forward from the back before playing the pass to the midfield with little pressure whatsoever. As a result, Arsenal’s midfield narrows as they’re inevitably drawn into the man they’ve allowed time on the ball while around them, the opposition can make runs unopposed. For the goal, The Gunners allow three men to break through in between the lines forcing the defence to drop off. Pinzi picks up the ball with acres of time and space, finding the head of Di Natale with aplomb. The Gunners did press better in the second period and they are visibly better with their shape when they press higher as it allows them to man-mark earlier and cover the zones.

Nevertheless, it was a fine game of football Arsenal were involved in and more than anything else perhaps, they seem to have got their mojo back in possession. The win was more than the £25million Peter Drury exclaimed on ITV at the end of the game before adding ubiquitous advice of “spend it.” This was a win that confirmed Arsenal’s character; their ability to fightback following a tumultuous summer and a tough first-half. Seasons have turned on less; equally, there have been brighter false dawns. But this was a result to savour for Arsenal and it rightly puts them back to the place where they belong; as one of biggest clubs in Europe going straight into Pot One for the Champions League draw.

<Figure 1> Arsenal and Udinese’s average touch positions. Note: The narrowness of Arsenal’s attack is much down to the interchange between Gervinho and Walcott, swapping wings at regular intervals. The rotation in central midfield can also be seen in the 15 minute pitch charts. (Click to Enlarge).

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7 Responses to “Tomáš Rosický gives Arsenal control of their own destiny”

  1. Tee Song says:

    Spot on analysis. Interestingly, Frimpong brought a lot to the game. He was energetic, strong in the tackle and physically imposing and actually won more individual battles than he lost. But despite an all action display which won quite a few plaudits in the English press and blogosphere, Udinese exploited his positional naivety and Arsenal were quite vulnerable defensively.

    Wenger often gets criticized for poor substitutions or lack thereof so he should be praised for exchanging Rosicky for Frimpong. It was funny, the announcers for my feed seemed baffled by this substitution. Song shifted back to his regular role and produced an outstanding display which I hope Frimpong studied, showing that positional awareness is just as important to a midfielders duties as “getting stuck in.” Meanwhile, Rosicky added the technical quality in the shuttler role which Song lacks. I’m struggling to think of a clear cut chance for Udinese we pretty much controlled the game in the second half. Give the circumstances, a very satisfying win.

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @Tee Song,

    Hi, I agree, Frimpong does offer a lot to Arsenal and that it’s also tough on him how much of a responsibility he has in the holding role. The balance wasn’t right in the first-half; I thought’d it’d be a 4-2-3-1 which may have helped defensively but at least we got to see how Song fares in a more advanced role. He also looked decent but given the balance of the team, it was hard to expect him to become Fábregas all of a sudden.

    More of the same from the second-half methinks.

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  2. Marcus says:

    If Frimpong can learn a much stronger degree of positional awareness and combine it with the ‘all-action’ dimension of his game, he’ll be a great player and one that the opposition desperately doesn’t want to see in the line-up.

    I wonder how Wenger sees M’Vila fitting into all this, presuming the widely reported offers to purchase him are real? Song and M’Vila shielding the back four, with Wilshere more advanced? Or is M’Vila a replacement for Song?

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    Hi Marcus,

    Yes, the M’Vila link. A lot has been speculated about where he will fit in – if indeed Arséne Wenger’s interest in him is serious. I’d say he won’t be a direct challenger to Alex Song; yes, he can play in defensive midfield and it’s a possibility he will play there but ideally he’ll slot in alongside Song in a 4-3-3.

    Wenger has always looked for a second function midfielder (like Khedira) having courted Melo while Diaby/Denilson haven’t quite cut it yet. What this means for the rest of the team is unclear; you’d assume Wilshere is a definite starter so he may get more of an attacking duty. Never mind, the team needs cover in midfield and M’Vila be a good signing.

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    kv Reply:

    Have to admit that I haven’t seen much of M’Vila. But this video suggests he would be more ideal doing Song’s work.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ya9kRiy9oZM
    I feel a slightly more adventurous player such as Rosicky or Wilshere will be more suited for the second function midfielder. M’Vila looks like a ‘win the ball back and play the easiest pass’ type of player. May be Arsene should be looking for a player who can unlock defences with dribbling ability and passing skills, or in other words a replacement for Cesc(if there is any). What do you think?

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    The Brain Reply:

    @kv,

    Hi, nice to see you back! (I won’t mention the cricket).

    Anyway, I did watch that game live and as indicated by that video, he doesn’t look a £20m player. I don’t think a sole holder is his best position; he’s a Sami Khedira-type in that he ties the knots in the system and can contribute everywhere. If he comes in, I envisage a role similar to how Denilson played in the 4-3-3 in 2009/2010.

    I agree Arsenal might be better off with a creative player – actually we need one although it might be worth getting one who can play out wide since we have none of that type in the team. Arshavin can only be described loosely as one consider his individualism. Technique-wise, we can improve but who’s to say M’Vila is the only one we are looking at? I can maybe see another one coming in….

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  3. manny says:

    found this column and enjoy reading posts and comments, keep it up.
    Happy with the Champions league draw too.

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