The Arsenal Column

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

Six points on Queens Park Rangers 2-1 Arsenal

1. Arsenal’s away blues continue

Arsenal’s indifferent away form continued with a 2-1 defeat to Queens Park Rangers. Their opponents might be embroiled in a relegation battle but there was an air of uncertainty whether Arsenal could extend their lead over Tottenham Hotspur with a victory. That’s because their record away has been patchy until recently – it became 7 wins, (2 draws) and 7 losses after this defeat – but while previous games against Sunderland, Liverpool, Everton have yielded wins, Arsenal have rode their luck somewhat.

That’s probably a harsh assessment because they were tough fixtures and rather, the fact that Arsenal came out with three wins should highlight their growing mental strength. However, there is a sense of anxiety in Arsenal’s football whenever they play away from home and while Arsène Wenger maintains there is no difference to their approach wherever they play, there’s no doubt that their opponents show more ambition at their home ground. Regardless, Wenger’s selection hinted that he considered QPR might play more aggressively therefore he selected Aaron Ramsey on the left to try and gain some form of control. We’ll debate whether that was the right decision later but certainly there was sense in the move; Arsenal have struggled when opponents press – and they do so more confidently at home – thus Wenger wanted to strengthen his side’s ability to keep the ball. His reason, however, was less revealing; “the thinking is that he played there because I decided for him to play there.”

But Arsenal failed to find a way through as QPR remained compact in the middle and pressed particularly hard whenever the ball reached the wide areas. Arsenal were unable to complete the combinations they’ve been doing recently down the flanks and their movement was uncharacteristically static. It’s in little moments, such as the goal, in which Arsenal were able to find a semblance of fluency, otherwise QPR deserve full credit for their gameplan. And they were just as alert to take advantage whenever they got forward, particularly exposing Arsenal with early balls down the channels. For their second goal and their winner, the ball was played quickly from the halfway line just as Arsenal looked to push up. As a result, a large gap was created in the midfield which the spare midfielder, Samba Diakité, took advantage of. The problem was Arsenal were unable to compress space when pressing; at home they can push teams back with their possession as normally, opponents are more cautious. Here, QPR showed zeal and while Arsenal accrued 69% possession – eminently more than their average of 57% away – QPR defended deep and left their forwards up the pitch, creating a large gap in the centre. They made full use of it, as Wenger indicated afterwards saying: ”It is the first time this season, we were too open when we had the ball.”

2. Ramsey selection

The decision to start Aaron Ramsey on the left against Everton raised a few eyebrows but that was emphatically swatted away by the start Arsenal made. However, at QPR, that moment never came. Just as Thomas Vermaelen was at fault for the two goals, Ramsey has been scapegoated  - or rather the selection of him out wide, as symptomatic of Arsenal’s poor performance. The rationale was not incorrect although by deploying a player outside of his favoured position it always carries with it, a higher degree of uncertainty.

Ramsey tended to drift inside and that clogged up the centre. But that in itself shouldn’t be a problem because put simply, Arsenal’s movement was below par. Indeed, the selection of Ramsey on the left as an auxiliary wide midfielder was meant to encourage greater fluidity and in particular, the rotation between him and his direct competitor in the centre, Tomas Rosicky. That may seem like an unnecessarily complication but possession sides are built on interchangeability and by drifting infield, it opens up space for another midfielder to take up his position. It should be the basics of football and in Spain, young players are trained this way as they are “taught to see the pitch as a field of eight boxes, all of which must be occupied.” Indeed, Cesc Fábregas hints at this “tactical anarchy” when he says ”at Arsenal, I could move wherever I felt I could make the best contribution. Here [Barcelona], it’s completely different. Everyone has their own place and it’s important you stick to your position.” And certainly, this season, we’ve seen him frequently get into positions detriment to his team – at times, getting in the way of his team-mates – a sight all too familiar at Loftus Road whenever Ramsey drifted inside. Fans shouldn’t direct their anger at just him though; Rosicky should have looked to take up his position on the left.

Aaron Ramsey's touches courtesy of Opta Sports (@Orbinho)

- Some argue the decision to start Aaron Ramsey on the left disrupted a winning formula. That’s not entirely true as although Arsenal fielded a more attacking line-up against Aston Villa, away from The Emirates, Wenger has often tried to incorporate another midfielder to retain a level of control. Indeed, on further inspection, it’s been the left-side which has been rotated in this run of wins with Yossi Benayoun initially starting there before Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain was used against Newcastle. Ramsey was given his chance in the next game and was kept after a good team performance. Wenger would have wanted to recreate the first 30 minutes of that game where Arsenal completely outplayed Everton but perhaps it was wrong to draw too many conclusions from that win. Because when Everton did press Arsenal, they were unable to find any rhythm and surely enough, they fell into the same trap against QPR. Nevertheless, the way Arsenal did score was how Wenger would probably have envisaged – Ramsey coming inside, drawing attention away from the right where Walcott made a run, allowing Rosicky and van Persie to combine before freeing the winger. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen enough as Arsenal’s overall movement was very poor. Creativity suffered and, as shown by the graphic below, QPR funnelled their attacks and forced them to try and dribble their way – unsuccessfully – through the centre.

3. Vermaelen’s impetuousness proves costly

The biggest test of Thomas Vermaelen’s character, after he allowed Adel Taarabt to get past him for the opener, was whether he would continue playing in the same manner. And sure enough, the next similar pass that was played to a QPR forward, he tried to nip in front and steal possession. Vermaelen’s game – as indeed Arsenal is – is built on his impetuousness, looking to regain possession quickly and compress the space in front. But it carries with it, it’s inherent risks and the downside of it was displayed twice for QPR’s goals as first, Vermaelen was turned by Taarabt before he slipped in the lead up to the second, after initially winning the ball.

Both Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny contribute heavily to Arsenal’s style due to their stealth-like ability to take possession of their opponents toes but while the latter has added calmness to his game, lengthy periods away from centre-back haven’t seen yet Vermaelen adjust. It’s not the first time he has made such errors that have led directly to goals and Vermaelen will have to prove that his reputation thus far, hasn’t been biased towards his character. Arsenal have long bemoaned costly individual errors and Vermaelen’s untimely slip means Arsenal have now conceded the most goals – 11 – from errors leading directly to goals than any other team.

Both Vermaelen and Koscielny made five interceptions but Vermaelen's sum up his zealousness as he won his high up the pitch.

4. Alex Song crucial

Alex Song’s importance was displayed once again as he attempted 109 passes in total but there is a feeling that he might be doing too much. Because, as well as acting as the shield in front, making 5/7 tackles, he’s often tasked with providing the through-balls for the forwards. It’s all part of Arsenal’s rotation in the centre but perhaps a degree of specialisation might allow them to be more efficient. At the moment, both Arteta and Song play a dual role but if one of them held, then Diakite’s goal might have been avoided. The pair have been superb this season but there are inefficiencies in the system, those of which have been particularly exposed away from home.

5. Bobby Zamora outshines van Persie

If there’s one criticism of Robin van Persie’s game, it’s that his hold-up play leaves a lot to be desired. He lost the ball 8 times on Saturday through bad control or being dispossessed and generally failed to get into the game. He did have Arsenal’s best chance beyond the goal, threaded through by Song, displaying his superb movement but was well stopped by Paddy Kenny. By contrast, Bobby Zamora received the ball twice as much as QPR tried to play it to him early and he caused Arsenal plenty of trouble with his strength. Indeed, he tends to drift to his right and in the games he played for Fulham against Arsenal as well, he has got the better of Vermaelen.

6. Kieran Gibbs is learning but he needs help

A common theme of QPR’s play was getting the ball down the channels, especially when Arsenal were disorganised. Kieran Gibbs was especially targeted and the winner came from his side. As shown by the take-ons below, QPR were not put under the same pressure down the left as they were on the right where Arsenal tend to slant. As a result, Gibbs wasn’t afforded the same protection and as thus, made to look inexperienced. He’s going to be a superb full-back in the future but at the moment, he’s not getting the help he requires.

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15 Responses to “Six points on Queens Park Rangers 2-1 Arsenal”

  1. Ole Gunner says:

    Tactical anarchy? No it’s Fabregas’ tactical naïveté. He was given a free role. Messi gets a free role at Barca and he gets to run anywhere he wants

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @Ole Gunner,

    I apologise for using such a polarising term! What “anarchy” implies is that at times, the players are free to move as they will. Which is fine is essence to offer spontaneity but interchangeability works when players take up a vacated position – that’s how Spain’s youth is taught, how Barca and Holland have/had made a success of it. The problem I’m trying to highlight was the movement was uncharacteristically, perhaps, poor; something we might get away with direct wingers but here, the idea was to encourage such rotation. That, by large, failed.

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  2. sognatori says:

    1. Why Aaron Ramsey? This season he’s movement is poor. Of course, he is very potential player and hard worker, but needs to learn more, I think. Also I really wonder his passing selection or quality. Without tactical issue, his basic skills are too tough and deficient.

    2. I told Vermi’s aggresive style is nervous. Don’t he think to change his style? Defender is priority for defence, not attack or biuld-up.

    3. Why can’t Arteta do a through-pass? I mean final-third pass like Song’s something. Tactical instruction? Lack of skills?

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  3. William says:

    I think that the biggest problem with Ramsey’s game is that he and Arteta are too similar. They generally focus on keeping the ball and linking play up (bringing the ball from defense to attack), which leaves Song as the only real through-ball player. That, I think, is why the team has looked more fluid with Rosicky playing, because he’s willing to gamble with through balls and be direct with his running at the defense. For whatever reason, Arteta has not taken up the position as a playmaker when Ramsey drops deep, and perhaps Wilshere would be more suited to playing with Ramsey, since we have seen him exploit the space that Fabregas leaves by dropping deep. Wilshere is the one capable of playing both deep and high up, while Arteta doesn’t look uncomfortable being the playmaker, he simply never takes up the role.

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @William,

    There are some interesting stats – Arteta has played most final third passes and Ramsey is in the top 10 of chances created in open play. But I understand your point; what Risucky had given is a degree of specialisation which means there’s notbthevsame onus on Song to create – although he’s still doing just that. My solution would be to play Arteta as the holder – he’s done so in fluctuation but never quite in extended periods. But the issue might be Song, who might not be suited higher up. It might be worth a try as Song as the second-function midfielder, then we might see him use his graft better.

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    William Reply:

    @Arsenal Column,

    One of the things that I have found puzzling was that Ramsey was so prolific in terms of creating chances, given that he doesn’t seem to spend that much time doing so. When Ramsey plays, I get the sense that Arsenal are fluid at times, but only when he’s pushed up more and actually making use of his abilities; when Rosicky plays, the team’s passing looks better overall.
    The issue I have with playing Song deeper is that he has become such a force for launching long through-balls, something that the rest of the midfield doesn’t do so well (even disregarding the lack of through-balls, the other midfielders are not that great passing-wise). Perhaps if we had a better half-winger (i.e. Nasri) we wouldn’t need his directness so much, but Walcott, Gervinho, and AOC are all fast, direct players, and IMO that makes Song’s passing more important, given that the team generally has more space to work with this season than compared to last season. I still think Song should, long-term, be the deepest midfielder, but I don’t think it works with the personnel Arsenal have at the moment.

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  4. kaneprior says:

    QPR played Arsenal excellently, defending deep where Arsenal had no-one who could dribble through there defense like they did last season (nasri, Fabregas). Rosicky was the only player who looked capable of that, Ramsey and Walcott are poor dribblers and Walcott in particular is poor against deep defending.

    But Arsenal didn’t help themselves:
    -Sagna didnt get forward enough to try and overload the QPR defense, something he has done excellently recently.
    - Gibbs was overloaded by Onuoha, who Ramsey didnt track back at all.
    - Verm was too aggressive, he should have realised his high pressure wasnt gonna work today, as Kol was too preoccupied by Taarabt to cover.
    - Bringing me to the point of Taarabt, QPR’s best player. Arteta was poor today at defending the space on his side of the pitch, he left Taarabt so much space. He has been great this season, but has been poor at tracking midfield runs and needs to improve on this.
    -Ramsey also doesnt suit the left position, he isnt much of a dribbler and I really think he is destined for player deeper. He wasnt direct enough in this game and played too far away from goal.

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  5. Tee Song says:

    TV5 was turned on one play and slipped on another. Arsenal’s defenders do seem to deal with one v one situations poorly but the mark of a great team defense is that individual errors are minimized AND that other players are in a position to help and cover. On QPR’s first goal, one has to ask how Hill is allowed to completely bypass our midfield with a forty yard pass to Taarabt, their most dangerous player, in a great attacking position. He’s under no pressure and the ball goes right down the center of the pitch. And on QPR’s winner, how does Diakote end up completely uncovered, in the center of our penalty area with all that time and space to receive a very slowly rolled ball and sidefoot the it with goal at his mercy? Koz and Sagna actually had the situation initially well managed so if Song and Arteta had the awareness to track back, that might have been a salvageable situation. One of the hallmarks of our winning run has been the pressing of the forwards and the midfielders attention to defending as a team and in this game that seemed to be lacking.

    While I agree that Ramsey’s selection out wide is to add to our possession game, I think it comes at the expense of a more direct, unpredictable attacker like Gervinho or Ox. Right now, those two are the only two players in the side who consistently try to run at defenders. Against deep, compact defenses having a player who’s capable of beating defenders is an important addition.

    The left side has been an area which Arsenal have failed to utilize all season. As I’ve said, Arsenal are unique in that they’re one of the few teams who don’t prefer both flanks over the middle in terms of attacks. I think the brilliance of RvP and the assists provided by Song and Theo have helped to mask this inability to use the full width of the pitch but sometimes, as in this game, our reluctance to attack down the left as hurt us. I wonder if Ramsey’s selection over Gervinho or Ox isn’t a tacit admission by Wenger that Gibbs needs help on that side, particularly in terms of possession. I feel that Santos might provide that extra technical quality in possession and his experience may allow a more “expressive” player to be played on the left wing.

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @Tee Song,

    1) I think QPR were clever in that they left Zamora up the pitch to stretch the gap in the centre and defended with three hard-working midfielders. That allowed Mackie and Taarabt to support Zamora. One thing that has been missing in our play is through-marking when pressing – Wilshere was excellent at that. But noone seemed to get tight when Hill had the ball. The second goal, we pusher up as the pass was made – ball watching is what I think they call it.

    2) possession-wise, at away, I think we’ve been poor in that we’ve had the ball but not prolonged enough to push opponents back. A telling stat; at home, we have 32% of play in attacking third – that drops to 27% away.

    Action Zones

    3) I actually feel that Gervinho/Ox are better on the right that’s a moot point here because I agree, we haven’t used that side well. In this game, Arteta was so attracted to the right, Gibbs had no in-between cover, something Sagna is afforded.

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  6. D says:

    For me this game was yet another example of Arsenal main weakness for the past few years: a lack of discipline in midfield. The whole shape of the match could have been different if Arteta and Ramsey had showed more defensive awareness. Yes Wenger likes his players to be dynamic, but you have to pick the right times to “express yourself” and the times TO. TRACK. THE. RUNNER.

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  7. DaStuDawg says:

    Good article, as ever.

    As much as I like Wenger, I do have to wonder if he’ll ever improve some of his blindspots.
    Nearly 4 years ago, in only your second or third ArsenalColumn article, we talked about how Bobby Zamora (and to a lesser degree, Seol Ki-Hyeon) had torn us apart against Fulham. There was a huge gap between defence and midfield, and huge gaps down the channel left for the battering-ram forward to exploit.

    Whilst your insight into the game seems to have developed massively in this time, the very same weaknesses that we faced 4 years ago were evident against QPR.

    When Song dropped back in front of the defence against Tottenham, we looked like a whole new team, with the sort of defensive poise that is sadly so rarely associated with Arsenal.
    I hoped this would signal a change, but it seems Wenger has reverted back to the tried and tested (but failed, IMO) tactic of allowing the midfield to push forward and separate from the defence, and the full-backs to push up and provide width.

    IMO, it is imperative that the defence gets more support. Whilst it may seem that this might limit our attacking prowess, with a slightly more defensively minded midfield set-up, the passing channels could have been closed off, and QPR wouldn’t have been able to so easily release their attackers, reducing the time spent needed to defend.
    Further, with Song sitting deeper, for example, the midfield might have been less cluttered when Ramsey came inside.

    Whilst this might have helped ameliorate the Ramsey problem, I still favour a bit more pragmatism in our attacking set-up.

    When Gervinho came on, no longer was the QPR defence allowed to shift along to compress the space in the centre and on the right of the pitch.
    Even if this means the widemen are less involved in play directly, keeping wingers closer to the touchline can indirectly help to improve the midfielders and the forward’s game, by allowing them more space in which to work.

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    ArsenalColumn Reply:

    @DaStuDawg,

    I’ve been debating on twitter whether Song does too much – if a degree of specialisation would help the midfield to be more efficient. In that regard, I very much agree with you that it would have helped in this game if Song dropped back as the sole pivot in midfield rather than a duo with Arteta; Arsenal’s structure was far too open.

    I applaud the Ramsey idea even if the execution was a bit poor but Arsenal haven’t really clicked away this season and this feels like an obvious ploy to try and gain some control in possession. It didn’t work and it seems away from home, we’re not compact enough both defensively and offensively. In that case, a degree of specialisation would help massively – Song being more defensive inclined would have made a huge difference to our play.

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    DaStuDawg Reply:

    @ArsenalColumn,

    Yeah, it’s an interesting point, particularly since Song’s creativity has been so important to us this season. However, I do feel he works best making runs from deep when the opposition seem to stand off of him; he receives more time with which to pick the killer ball that has been so important, so perhaps dropping him deeper won’t be as stifling from a creative standpoint.

    My only concern with this is that it might hinder Van Persie. As you highlight, Van Persie’s hold up play isn’t good; if you drop Song a little deeper, then the Dutchman may have less of the quick support that he requires in order to ensure we can retain possession. Perhaps this is why Wenger’s been so reluctant to implement the tactic.

    And yes, the Ramsey idea makes sense, but I think if it’s going to be done, it should be with a player that can both provide width, and drop inside only when necessary, in order to aid the central midfield. I think Chamberlain, with his aptitude both out wide and in the centre, would have been perfect for this role.

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  8. Great website and fantastic article like usual mate. I just wanted to know what your thoughts and views were about Arsenal lacking a number ten. A second striker/CAM. You know the kind of player I mean.

    E.g. Van Der Vaart for Spurs (hate to use this as an example). He will get 10-15 goals each season for him. Something we lack IMO.

    When Rosicky’s playing the closest to van Persie he doesn’t get close enough to him and support him. When van Persie receives the ball no one is close enough to him.

    Wilshere might end up playing their but we don’t know yet. We’ve been linked with Gylfi Sigurdsson I think he would be a great buy. Would suit are style and scores goals more than role something we lack.

    Any thoughts? Thanks mate.

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    The Brain Reply:

    @vanPersieFan101,

    I’d say it should be our main target given the season we’ve had but we’ve been without Diaby, but more importantly, Wilshere – two players who improve us massively. At the same time, however, my view is that they’re both best a bit deeper and similarly, we haven’t had anyone else, bar Arteta, who can play that role this season.

    We’ve seen the impact Rosicky has made, why it’s a key part of our game. He’s given us impetus with his passing and drive although there’s a thought – like you have – that we can improve in that position (and buying a number 10 will allow him to play wide as Benayoun or Ramsey has recently played).

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