Maximus Tacticus – Arsenal
Arsenal is the most talked about team in EPL this year along with Manchester City. The Fabregas fiasco started last year, reached its peak during the pre-season, eventually culminating in an I-shall-pay-from-my-pocket-to-leave Arsenal transfer to his boyhood club Barcelona. Results on the pitch have been equally interesting. Weeks within being the source of KFC’s I 8-2 much last night joke, they stunned Chelsea 5-3. As the season unfolds, the Arsene Wenger is beginning to get his strategy working and let us now see how.
New Season New Approach
Defence has been Arsenal’s problem for quite some time now. Wojciech Szczęsny has been strictly ok and have been on the receiving end of some brutal thrashing. He has not made any blunders, to be fair, but will need time (he is only 21) to stamp his authority on this young Arsenal side. Since Gael Clichy left for Manchester City this summer, Arsene Wenger has not been able to find a replacement for him. The new recruit, Brazilian Andre Santos has made a mockery of himself so far this season. He is easily the weakest link until now in the fragile back four. Per Mertesacker’s game reading is not as impressive as his height. He can be a good stopper but lacks the organizing skills which once made William Gallas a stalwart in defence. This is where the presence of Thomas Vermaelen becomes very crucial. Injuries aside, he is a class act at the heart of the Gunners defence. His leadership qualities bring a much needed calmness to this otherwise error-prone backline. But the third centre back is another major concern. Going by the injury crisis at Arsenal in the recent years, Laurent Koscielny or Sebastien Squillaci may be called upon quite often this season. Their nervous displays suggest that Arsene Wenger might have to think of a stop-gap defensive line with the likes of Johan Djourou being deployed there. The right back seems the most stable position thus far. There are plenty of choices available in the form of Bacary Sagna, Johan Djourou or the youthful Carl Jenkinson. Even Koscielny has been playing regulary there.
Arsenal have a new look midfield this season. According to Wenger, they have brought in a like for like replacement in Mikel Arteta and Yossi Benayoun to compensate for the loss of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Not really, if you have been following Arsenal even remotely this season. Arteta has not been able to take the game by the scruff of the neck like the little Spaniard used to. Benayoun could not even break into the first team. In an injury free ideal scenario, Jack Wilshere seems the more natural descendant to Fabregas. He is an old school box-to-box midfielder, so rare these days. Young Welsh captain, Aaron Ramsey will keep Arteta on his toes. He is the kind of player around whom the whole team tends to revolve. Not surprisingly, Arsenal looked lethal in the game against Bolton where Ramsey gave his best performance so far. Besides scoring an own goal, Ramsey was awful against Liverpool. So was Arsenal. The young Arsenal duo of Wilshere and Ramsay can bring the best out of Tomáš Rosický by allowing him to a play in a deeper role. This suits the Czech well as he gets more time on the ball. It will still be a fluid midfield with the three central midfielders taking turns to move forward. But injury woes have haunted the Emirates faithful for some time now. They would then certainly look less creative and take more workaholic approach with the likes of Alex Song or Emmanuel Frimpong operating as a proper defensive screen.
Arsenal have always been a treat to watch even for their opponents. This time round more so, because of a fluid 4-3-3 system where the front three interchange position constantly. Wenger has come up with a more direct, cohesive fast pace approach rather than the leisurely, trying-to-create-a-perfect-move tactics. This obviously suits Arsenal’s pacy young line-up. Robin van Persie is the man up front with a fantastic return this year. He can also be deployed in a false 9 role, pushing central midfielders and wide poachers up to create goal scoring opportunities for them. He is ably supported by the pace of Theo Walcott and Gervinho. They are not natural wingers, rather poachers, who sit on the shoulder of the last man but start wide on the pitch. There is a disadvantage to this approach –the wing play is minimized, the fullbacks are exposed. But as a football lover, we get to see an open attacking game of football.
Narrow 4-3-3 with RVP playing a false 9
What Else in Store
Arsenal traditionally has a great counter attacking pace and threat. As demonstrated against Chelsea, they excel against teams who play high up the pitch (a certain Spanish team apart). But the problem comes against less ambitious teams who would like to pack the defensive third and invite the opposition to attack. Arsenal has been poor in threading the ball through a packed defence and more often than not ends up in hurling a wayward cross from the wide areas. It is now well known that the fullbacks are not good crossers and the opposition thus can afford to congest the middle of the pitch, leaving the wide area relatively free. They just gamble on the fact that the chances of having to defend a decent cross are quite less. And even if it does come, they can outnumber the sole troublesome figure of Robin Van Persie. To address this issue, Arsene Wenger may introduce Marouane Chamakh who can add a bit of aerial threat. But this solution comes with a pinch of salt.
More Attacking Options (?)
Arsenal has to reshuffle their pack now to a 4-4-2. The removal of a front man from the attack may seem strange in trying to make the formation more attacking, but it is more to do with the approach. The more men there are in the midfield, the better they have control of the ball and better ball possession leads to greater number of chances of scoring. Tactically, it gives the two wide midfielders a target man, a perfect No. 9, who can stay up distracting the centre backs. His striking partner can operate from the hole linking up with the other attacking players. But, this hampers Arsenal’s short passing game in the midfield – the central midfielders are visibly more comfortable playing in a 3-man CM formation rather than a flat or diamond 2-man CM. Further, the wide forwards have to be more involved in defensive duties as they are playing now as wingers or wide midfielders. But neither Walcott nor Andrey Arshavin would fancy tracking back the opponent fullback too much. So, it is not likely that Wenger will adopt this style unless they want to throw a man forward for a goal in the dying minutes of a match.
Man to Watch (1) – Aaron Ramsey
Aaron Ramsey is not yet 21 and already proudly wears the armband of the Wales national football team. Now, that is some achievement. At Arsenal, Ramsey has had the opportunity to play competitive football at a very young age and that has helped in his development immensely. The departure of Cesc and Nasri this season proved to be a blessing in disguise, paving the way for more gaming time for Ramsey. He has made 11 appearances for Arsenal so far in the League and has caught the eyes of the experts and fans alike. Ramsey possesses vision; like his predecessor Fabregas, he can run from the deep with the ball and set up an exciting attacking option. His fluidity has been an asset to the team and the young Wales captain has dictated the play more often than not with his classy and impeccable passing. Another feature that makes Ramsey an even exciting prospect is his personal rapport with Jack Wilshere, another Arsenal academy product. The duo look to set for a long run at the heart of Gunner’s midfield. Ramsey is a better dribbler than Cesc, and he might lift the mood at Emirates and emulate the mastery of the latter in times to come. His display against Bolton (below) proves a point – he prefers to rule the centre of the pitch. He rarely drifts wide, keeps a close watch on the “mid”-field and lashes a range of passes, that too with an accuracy of 85% – a superb feat considering his tender age.
Ramsey covering the ground
Man to Watch (2) – Robin van Persie
Scored 38 goals in 41 games (as on 23 November 2011). Sometimes statistics do lie, but not this time. RVP is striking gold every time he is on the field these days. He is leading by example, he is the reason Arsenal are quickly moving in a new direction following the heart-breaking transfer window. He’s got the skill, he’s got the pace. This year he has been fortunate to remain injury-free and that is surely a bit of luck this injury-prone footballer always deserved. Also, Wenger has clearly gone back to his 1-man-up-front formation which has helped van Persie to know his role better. He is currently playing in a false 9 position – his stature makes him a natural target for crosses (as for Song against Dortmund in Matchday 5 of Champions League), but he often drops deep and draws his marker along with him to create space for others. Not bothering with criticism for his weaker foot, he has made the most of his lethal left foot and lanky figure. Just see (below) how he tormented Chelsea at their backyard.
36 Min: Open Play => Left Foot 85 Min: Quick break => Right Foot
92 Min: Fast Break => Left Foot
Blue Line – Successful Pass
Red Line – Unsuccessful Pass
White Line – Assist / Goal