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

Arsenal 2-1 Borussia Dortmund: Alex Song helps Arsenal to overcome Dortmund’s pressing

Of all the things riding on the match, Alex Song’s dignity in the dressing room was the least obvious. But his bet with Andre Santos proved to be the catalyst to produce one Arsenal’s all-time great assists and send Arsenal through to the knock-out stages.

Picking the ball up slightly to the left of Borussia Dortmund’s half – in a position Santos himself may have expected to have been – he went on a slaloming run down the touchline, taking on three men before delivering a pin-point cross onto the head of Robin van Persie. The goal came just after Dortmund had cranked up the pressure after the interval and Arsène Wenger was grateful to Alex Song for breaking free from the remits of his trade. “Song did something exceptional for a defensive midfielder,” he said after. Song, though, revealed it was a wager with Santos which inspired him but more tellingly, gave an insight to the strength of Arsenal’s dressing room at the moment. “What’s important is not what I did,” said Song. “It’s what the what team did tonight. We had a good result. Before the game, I said to André [Santos]: ‘Tonight I will score or I will give an assist,’ and he said: ‘No chance.’ It was that sort of challenge you give each other before a game.”

For Arsenal fans, Alex Song’s all action displays are nothing new and they feel he deserves greater recognition for his consistency in the holding role. Of course, that role has been made easier this season – as Jack Wilshere also did last season – because of the arrival of Mikel Arteta. Nonetheless, Song still rose to the occasion and in the second-half – after the whole team had been given an unrelenting test in the first – came up with a number of important blocks and interceptions. His glide means he doesn’t need to slide to win the ball back and because he stays on his feet, Arsenal are able to attack as soon as he makes a tackle. He made 5 in fact while also executing 7 interceptions, showing how important he is to the way Arsenal functions.

It’s a more functional Arsenal this season; sort of a halfway house between pragmatism and the romanticism of the past and it’s proving to be the perfect blend. Initially, though, the cautiousness of Arsenal’s approach play was exposed as Dortmund hounded them in possession. However, they were patient to ride through the storm, particularly in the first 15 minutes and their passing was excellent in the second-half. The tempo was increased while Dortmund tired after their excursions against Bayern Munich in the weekend, and Arsenal finished them off with the efficiency normally typical of German opponents. Commendably, Jurgen Klopp was unwilling to attribute the loss of Mario Gotze and Sven Bender through injury as turning points but it did massively impact on their strategy. Bender in particular, sets the tone for the high pressing to work, as he backs up the work of the forwards by aggressively getting tight to the opponent’s central midfielders. As a result, Arsenal suffered early on in that area.

Jurgen Klopp’s tactics must be commended; he has the look of a genius and his side buzzed around the pitch like the particles in the Hadron Collider. The 4-2-3-1 morphed into a 4-4-2 off the ball and the wall of pressure they created stopped Arsenal from passing it through the centre. Ultimately though, both sides wanted to play through the wings; Dortmund were threatening at first but Arsenal’s defending around the box continues to impress. Wenger’s side, however, remained patient and they knew if they were able to get the ball to Walcott and Gervinho, they had every chance of exposing Dortmund’s impetuousness off the ball. The big difference between the two attacks, though, turned out to be van Persie and there was no doubt he was going to get the goals. Klopp promised to stop the striker by stopping the supply to him but the nature of van Persie’s play was an altogether unfamiliar threat. In the end, Klopp’s words seemed to resonate the same mixed feeling of awe and resignation that van Persie has inflicted on his opponents in his amazing run. “But Robin van Persie, wow, what a performance, what a player,” said Klopp. “He’s certainly one of the best in Europe. I’ve hardly ever seen a player who plays so deep in midfield and then is such a danger in the box.”

Some Chalkboards…..

1. Dortmund’s pressing

Borussia Dortmund’s pressing in the first 15-30 mins will have been familiar to Arsenal fans in more ways than one. While it has drawn comparisons with Barcelona’s rapid spell of pressure at the Emirates in 2009, it more closely resembles Arsenal’s efforts which worked so successfully for two-thirds of last season. Shinji Kagawa presses alongside Robert Lewandowski to make a 4-4-2 when closing down  – similar to what Cesc Fábregas had been doing – and behind them was a unit who defended through “through-marking;” (i.e. by getting tight to stop the passes from reaching their targets). Sven Bender did that particularly well and as such, his removal from the game, from a defensive viewpoint, can be seen as a turning point. Dortmund created a first line of pressure that stopped Arsenal from passing the ball into the centre of midfield.

Arsenal had their own strategy to evade the press and as a result, perhaps they didn’t mind the fact the middle was blocked. Arteta and Song pushed up instead of dropping deep to pick up the ball therefore affording the centre-backs more room in the build up. Arsenal had plenty of ball in their own half but struggled to unsettle Dortmund’s pressing. It was not until the second-half when Arsenal passed the ball quicker that Dortmund’s pressing became less effective.

The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager last season. “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.”

Only 22% of Arsenal's play came through the middle due to Dortmund's pressing and compactness. Their season average through the middle is 34%.

 2. Arsenal’s defensive plan

Alex Flynn, the author of Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub, said on twitter that “Arsène Wenger has no defensive plan B.” Which is quite an oversight from someone who has “analysed” Arsenal extensively during Wenger’s reign because it is quite evident he has changed his defensive strategy this season, and has done over the last few years. The change sees Arsenal dropping into their own half instead of aggressively searching for the ball and their improvement has become more noticeable as the season has progressed. Initially, they failed to get to grips with it but their defensive security has gradually improved and their defending around the box – bar the mistake at the end – is now more solid.

In Arsenal's first European match last season, they pressed more aggressively and won the ball back higher up the pitch. As such, it echoes Dortmund's tactics last night and highlights the marked difference in Wenger's defensive plan this season.

3. Explosive Gunners

Jurgen Klopp bemoaned the lack of directness in Dortmund’s attacking play and that can be shown by the amount of times they attempted to take an Arsenal defender on. Without the magical feet of Götze, Dortmund lacked dynamism on the wings. Arsenal in comparison have plenty although they were far more successful on the less clogged left-hand side. Both sides, however, attempted the same amount of crosses at fourteen each.

4. The joy of Robin van Persie

What’s even more impressive about Robin van Persie is that he runs so much – as much as midfielder would. Last night, he covered 11252 metres – the 2nd highest for Arsenal. I watch him and think “Arsenal don’t press that intensely yet his figures so high. Why is that?” And that’s because he works so hard to get back into position when the team defends, acting as the reference point while his movement off the ball is stunning, always working the central defenders. Klopp says he’s rarely ever encountered a player like him and in the second-half, once Arsenal took the lead, van Persie used his intelligence to move around the pitch and allow the faster Theo Walcott and Gervinho to profit on the break.

Van Persie played more central in the first-half but in the second, his movement was more varied, looking to get others into play. Gordon Strachan noted how the wide players were able to come inside more and that's because van Persie's intelligence allowed them to do so.

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26 Responses to “Arsenal 2-1 Borussia Dortmund: Alex Song helps Arsenal to overcome Dortmund’s pressing”

  1. Arsenal says:

    INteresting stat about rvp defensive work rate. good article keep it up

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  2. K-TR7 says:

    Fantastic read as usual.spot on analysis.regarding pressure i think we missed jack,diaby and rosicky.they are our best midfielders when dealing with pressure since they can glide through it in and drive in behind.it will be interesting to see the change in midfield dynamics with diaby’s return especially if played as a false 10 behind rvp to utilise his attacking skillset.what do you think?

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @K-TR7,

    I thought the most impressive thing about last night was our ability to overcome the press. Some critics don’t realise how difficult it is to play Dortmund the way they did, the way we did (if that makes sense).

    We remained patient and we have the clinical(ity) when the going gets tough to change the game. To quantify that, Dortmund had 9 shots and we had 5.

    Where will Diaby go? We won’t change our formation much but he looks more of a Arteta replacement at the moment if Rosicky is also in contention. When Wilshere comes back, I’d suspect Diaby will play a bit higher. I like that False 10 option though; Ramsey has tried to push forward more when we have been looking for a goal; Diaby can be effective with that same freedom too.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

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    Anon Reply:

    @Arsenal Column,
    Great article. But I have doubts here about using Diaby in Arteta’s role. Diaby is great on the ball and would do well in Ramsey’s role as he likes to attack and can press from the front. But he does tend to attack too much. Remember Arsene’s Jacket throwing antics against the spurs? I wonder whether we’ll still be solid by having him replace Arteta.

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @Anon,

    I agree. I think the best chance of your fears not being realised is that Wenger also feels Arteta is undroppable at the moment. But he will need a rest at some time this season – in December most likely – which I feel will see him having to play that role. A far-right option would be Coquelin.

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  3. Jared says:

    Agreed, with Diaby’s return and his great ball control,one wonders what he would bring to this Arsenal squad, especially now that Cesc is not there and he can play in his preferred center midfield.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @Jared,

    Laurent Blanc on Diaby last month: “He’s a 21st century type of player. He changes the way a team plays. Wenger also regrets his absence.”

    Hope that whets your appetite!

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    Jared Reply:

    @Arsenal Column,

    It sure does. Wonderful piece by the way.

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  4. Sekone says:

    My favourite post match read so far and I loved how you back it up with the statistics, thanks! Now with Diaby back we have a back-up midfield of that could consist Diaby, Benayoun, Rosicknote and Wilshere in the middle and Arshavin, AOC and Ryo on the wings…now that is NUTS!

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  5. Rob says:

    An excellent article again, and now possibly the review I most look forward to after a game. Rather like a zonalmarking dedicated to Arsenal.

    Who do you think Arsene’s first choice midfield would be with a full squad available, and what difference do you think it would make to the way we play?

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @Rob,

    Wilshere will walk straight into the team. Where he will fit, we will probably not find out until March. Wenger’s comments seem to suggest he’s an “in-between” midfield like Arteta but more attacking. In the few matches in pre-season, he looked absolutely essential to the way we play and relished the extra responsibility.

    Wilshere’s our most penetrative player although Ramsey’s now much improved on that front. But what I feel he gives us most – and what the others don’t – is his drive; his ability to change the tempo and direction of the attack in an instant. (He attempts at least two dribbles a game although he runs with the ball much more than simple stats will quantify.)

    At the moment, that comes from either the wide men or through patient but quick passing, dragging players out. As we’ve seen by the Alex Song run, that drive is essential to break down defences.

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  6. arya says:

    Jurgen Klopp after Arsene anyone?

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @arya,

    It’s a really good shout. You can see by the hug he gave Wenger at the end that he really admires the coach.

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    arya Reply:

    @Arsenal Column,

    Yeah I saw that too.. and hopefully he’ll bring Gotze and Kagawa along :)

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  7. Tee Song says:

    Song deserves all the praise he’s been receiving, he was definitely MOTM. But as usual, this was a team performance with many excellent performances. Arteta kept possession and circulated the ball well, Ramsey was industrious and RvP put in another outstanding shift. But I thought Andre Santos had a very good game, quite possibly his best in an Arsenal shirt. As much as Song and Arteta, he provided “technical security” as Arsenal worked to break Dortmund’s very effective pressing.

    As you point out, Dortmund like to pressure both central defenders and work hard to clog the passing lanes to the midfielders. Thus, the fullbacks are often the easy outlet. But once the ball goes to the flanks, they do a very good job of shifting and essentially trapping the fullbacks, leaving them without a forward outlet and then, if they linger on the ball, closing down to try to dispossess them. On the right, Koz, as a central defender, seemed discomfited by the attention and completed only 63% of his passes which was the lowest of the starting eleven. Santos completed 81% of his passes, and his 67 attempts were the most on the team. His ability to beat the press, both with his dribbling skills and passing, was a key component of Arsenal’s superior possession. He pushed forward and functioned almost as an auxiliary midfielder.

    As an added point, Song shifted from right to left. There are two reasons for that, in my opinion. The first would be the presence of Gotze on Dortmund’s right. The second, and arguably more important, was to provide better coverage for Santos. With play being forced to the flanks and Koz a makeshift solution at right back, it was important for Santos to have the freedom to push forward. Song’s shift allowed him the security to do that. Especially in the second half, Santos’ clever turns, flicks and touches got him space and time to find a good pass whereas Koz often resorted to trying longer, slightly desperate passes up the sideline.

    The most satisfying aspect of this win was how efficient it was. We defended quite well. Until we were 2-nil up and the game was secured, Dortmund had only one decent look at goal, Kagawa getting behind our defenders from a clever one-two which, because of the angle and Szczesny’s positioning resulted in a rather routine save. You could argue they outshot us but only because of some long distance snatch shots. We dominated possession, were patient and never overcommitted, and created three great opportunities in scoring two goals. This team has some way to go yet but this was mature performance. In a game in which the defenses afforded few opportunities, we were simply more ruthless.

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    Lev Reynolds Reply:

    @Tee Song,

    That analysis on Andre Santos was excellent! I agree 100%. Santos is Brazilian and because of his flair & skill he was able to make space better than anybody else on the pitch.

    After looking through some of these comments I’ve realised this is this is the place to be after Arsenal games, when I’m on Twitter I see the Arsenal fans talk about the game but this is where everybody gives their own insight and what they liked/noticed about the game. If any of you guys have Twitter and ever wanna talk about Arsenal just mention me @LevReynolds

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @Tee Song,

    Great analysis. I don’t think I need to add more; it’s something I discussed on twitter during the match and I thought part of it was the bias down Arsenal’s right and Dortmund’s left thus freeing up space on his side. But on the whole I agree; he’s fantastically composed on the ball – at times, too much! – but superb at one-on-ones also.

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  8. kathir says:

    Hi
    If u could comment on the regards of formation of our side .ti would be insightful, most of the second half we had three at the back and santos on the other side of the half line…
    Wing play is more direct and impactful .. yes.. but a midfielder who can play a winger is necessary in my opinion to have the dynamism…as we more by day relying on pace of our front three than build up play….and klopp found us out by cutting supply….both walcott and gervinho dont hold up ball much..to bring others to play though they create space obviously….i mean oly when we have to switch our game play we need that option…
    And hope u give ur thoughts on koscielny s rise… he was excellent against dortmund… he was tackling flying outside the box from the right.. perfect defender for pressing play

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @kathir,

    Hi. I thought defensively, Koscielny was superb. At times his positioning was unconventional – that’s because he threw caution to the wind to try and make a block when it wasn’t really his duty. (A long shot from Kehl which he tried to close down comes to mind).

    I don’t think it was a back 3 as such, just that one defender was more cautious than the other. In regards to the wide forwards; we saw what Benayoun brought in possession and movement and I expect more involvement from him soon this season.

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  9. arya says:

    What do you think about Gervinho and Walcott? We often see Ramsey or RVP releases Gervinho with a through ball and he fluffed the chance. Meanwhile Walcott often get the ball on the touchline and forced to go outside the full back and cross. Is this caused by Wenger’s tactics or the players’ natural tendency? IMO their role should be reversed – Gervinho is the better dribbler, he should be on the right hugging the touchline and Walcott as the better finisher on the left making runs between the CB and FB (sounds like Barca’s Pedro and Villa?).

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @arya,

    Hi. I actually wrote here how Walcott is meant to resemble Pedro and Gervinho, David Villa. You could see that in the tactics – particularly when we are leading – as Gervinho is given more freedom to drift inside to centre-forward positions while Walcott is more worked on his defensive game. Link: http://arsenalcolumn.co.uk/2011/11/06/five-points-on-arsenal-3-0-west-bromwich-albion/

    I part-agree with you here; I think Gervinho is also better on the right-hand side but so is Theo Walcott. If you want a compromise, you’d put Gervinho on the left because he’s still potent on that side while Walcott’s runs are not as effective there.

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  10. Jared says:

    Also , I’m trying to figure out Alex Song ‘s role, he’s definitely not of the Makelele mould, he seems to bring something extra than just shielding . I wonder if he was “encouraged “to do so, or is it just part of his game?, Also i wonder how has he changed Arsenal’s tactics .

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    Irony Reply:

    @Jared,

    From the start of the calendar year Song’s role has been changing slowly, which has been possible due to inclusion of Wilshere and now Arteta in the midfield. Denilson just never gave the stability that the midfield needed for Song to play his game. He now has more freedom to drive forward in the knowledge that Wilshere/Arteta will occupy the deeper midfield role.

    Also keep in mind our formation is more of a 4-1-2-3-1 with a rotating midfield than with a double pivot. In this sense Song has become more a “box to box” midfielder, similar to the role Yaya Toure plays for Manchester City.

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    Jared Reply:

    @Irony,

    Nice, thanks for the reply.

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    Irony Reply:

    @Jared,

    Eeek! By a 4-1-2-3-1, I of course mean a 4-1-2-3.

    Might just clean this egg off my face.

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  11. Irony says:

    @ArsenalColumn

    I guess your probably not writing an article on the Fulham game (not much interesting from a tactical perspective) but I’d love to hear some thoughts on Vermaelen’s role in the side.

    He really does push up the pitch when we are attacking. Does he become an auxiliary midfielder or is he only looking to finish moves? Mats Hummels from Dortmund bears some similarity but he likes to link up with play more from what I’ve seen.

    So far it’s been a great weapon for us – Vermaelen can certainly finish well in the air and off the ground.

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