Although Robin van Persie won Arsenal.com’s player of the season award today by more than a landslide, there are several who deserve mentions alongside the Dutchman – the three men above for instance. No, not you Mike Dean. I blurred you out for a reason. (if you genuinely are reading this Mike, more penalties please. Not for the other team as pictured above, you give too many of those)
As well as Laurent Koscielny, Alex Song and Bacary Sagna, Mikel Arteta, Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky and Wojciech Szczesny have all made sizeable contributions this season, and those contributions should not be written off simply due to the magnitude of van Persie’s. Not only did several of them lay on a great deal of van Persie’s goals, but they were superb in their own rights. Suggestions that Arsenal are a one-man team are way off the mark, even if their captain did score a large amount of the Gunners’ goals last season.
In his first full season, Wojciech Szczesny made some excellent saves and was a commanding presence between the posts. A lack of protection from the defence and midfield at times exposed him – especially to an apparent weakness from long shots – but he still made some vital stops and his distribution seemed to improve. A large character, he’ll be sure to be Arsenal’s number one for years to come.
Despite two leg breaks, when he played, Bacary Sagna was a beacon of consistency and was always his no-nonsense self at right back, further strengthening his claim to being the best in the league in his position. As well as the never-wavering defensive contributions, he did his bit when he went forward too, setting up van Persie’s header at Anfield for example.
Many had Thomas Vermaelen & Per Mertesacker down as our first choice at the beginning of the season, and by the end, Laurent Koscielny is the only indisputable choice at centre back for many, myself included. The Frenchman (older than Vermaelen, to my surprise) had a superb second season, showing everyone that he had settled completely with many flawless displays in defence. Deserving of far more than just 4.29% in the player of the season poll.
In midfield we were ravaged with injuries, which meant we didn’t see Jack Wilshere once, and we were often without Alex Song’s back-ups in Coquelin & Frimpong. Luckily Song was pretty much always available, and while his performances weren’t as consistent as his appearances, he still came up with important assists when we needed him to; mostly to van Persie, although an exquisite ball to Theo Walcott for our second vs Aston Villa springs to mind.
Alongside Song in a midfield pivot was Mikel Arteta, summer deadline day signing from Everton. I’ve written way too much about him recently as it is, but one more paragraph can’t hurt: he added some much needed stability and balance to Arsenal, as well as chipping in with some vital contributions going forwards. Arsenal’s record without him said it all.
The third member of the regular midfield – in the second half of the season anyway – was Tomas Rosicky, and the Czech excelled in the role between Robin van Persie, linking up well with the Dutchman as well as dropping in and creating a midfield three with Arteta & Song, which helped Arsenal’s fluidity a great deal. 2 goals and 5 assists weren’t brilliant, but something to build on next season – and the goal to put the Gunners ahead against Tottenham was pretty huge.
It may seem strange to some that Theo Walcott is the final member praised in this post, as his contribution remains erratic, but there were still some important goals and assists scattered here, there and everywhere. In 46 appearances (including 5 as a substitute) he netted eleven times and set up nine goals – that’s 20 goals he was directly involved in. Not a bad return for someone still only 23 and still developing.
All in all, despite a huge contribution from van Persie, there were still vital parts played by his team-mates, and he certainly couldn’t have done it without them. I suppose this is kind of a lazy season review – and it’s not anything to do with the recent Unsung Heroes series, despite some relatable content.
While Arsenal usually start strongly and finish the season in a confused, stumbling daze, it appears that the reverse is panning out this season. After a false start that this guy would be proud of, they’ve gotten their season on track after a brief false dawn. Monday night’s victory over Newcastle was the fourth win having been behind in a row; a new Premier League record. The Gunners, with important players coming back left, right and centre, finally seem to be at their best.
The creativity, intensity and confidence had previously been very low in the season, but now the team seems to be finding the consistency in results and performances that they’ll need to overtake their deadly rivals; the enemy, as Bacary Sagna called them, Tottenham Hotspur in 3rd.
This can be put down mainly to the gelling of the team – after panicked deadline day deals, Arsenal were more a group of individuals as opposed to a unit, which seems to be what they are now. Skipper Robin van Persie has helped the players to bond, and they now seem a cohesive side, able to overcome any obstacle.
That unflappable quality was demonstrated perfectly against Newcastle, when Hatem Ben Arfa rifled in a goal for Newcastle against the run of play. Instead of retreating into their shells, Arsenal showed character and resilience by going up the other end and levelling the scores instantly. Going behind only seemed to motivate Arsenal further – like angering a wasp by swatting it. Arsene Wenger’s side didn’t seem fazed whatsoever by going behind, and even the fans were singing straight after the goal went in, highlighting the belief at the club right now.
The players have done a good job of getting the fans back on-side (the speculation about Lukas Podolski has helped too; more on him later this week), and having restored their broken image and pride against Tottenham, Milan and Liverpool, they now believe that third place is a realistic target and something that they might just end up achieving. They now believe that they’re a good team, and are ready to stand up to any team who threatens to damage the new aura around the club nowadays.
On the actual football, Arsenal were most dangerous when attacking down the right hand side, like against Milan. Theo Walcott and Bacary Sagna both had excellent games, with the former picking up the man of the match award, while Tomas Rosicky combined well with them both, particularly for the equaliser. Newcastle struggled to cope with Arsenal’s intensity and incisiveness, and Walcott was a large part of that.
He put some excellent balls into the box, making those who criticised his final ball tuck into some humble pie. What some don’t understand is that it takes two to make a good ball; the pass itself, and the run to get on the end of it. Analysing Walcott’s crosses yesterday, he got everything spot on – and not by luck as well, because the techniques were spot on for each of his balls in. Both of the goals were assisted by him, and credit rightly went his way. He now looks more confident, which is a vital part of his game, as he needs to be ready to take players on and whip the ball into the box.
Rosicky was the recipient of a new contract at the Emirates just before the game, and instead of settling with his future sorted out, continued his fine form, linking up excellently with Mikel Arteta, and supplying the pass for Walcott to set up van Persie’s goal.
The equaliser from the Dutchman was expertly taken – the delicate, cushioning first touch, the second to place it in his path and away from the flailing Mike Williamson, and finally the punishing, accurate finish past Tim Krul. It was van Persie’s first touch, and showed his clinical finishing touch.
Someone else who showed an eye for goal was Gervinho, although the Sky cameras didn’t pick it up. While Howard Webb was booking Jonas Gutierrez, van Persie took a quick free-kick, giving it to Bacary Sagna, who whipped it in for Gervinho. The Ivorian, in one swift movement, leapt up into the air and flicked the ball into the far corner of the net. It was a shame the cameras missed it, as I have no proof of it. But trust me, it happened.
As for the negatives – somebody has to I suppose – defensively the first goal was a poor one to concede for Arsenal. When Vermaelen gave the ball away, the midfield were labouring and didn’t get back, leaving a large gap between themselves and the defenders. Kieran Gibbs allowed the tricky Ben Arfa onto his left foot, and the Frenchman punished him.
Arsenal can ill-afford to sell any more big players – every summer for a while now they’ve sold at least two key players, which has disrupted their long-term momentum and put paid to any hopes of real season-to-season progress. If Arsenal can get some seasonal continuity in their line-up, they may begin to become more consistent and competitive. Not only that, but it would send out the completely wrong message – especially if it was van Persie that was sold – as it was surely be an admission that they are no longer a big club; instead a club whose ambition has faded away.
It’s difficult to think of a fitting first line for an article on a night like that (and some might call this one a cop-out), a night on which Arsenal came so close to completing the seemingly impossible. There were a few prevailing emotions at the final whistle: pride, restored after the humiliation at the San Siro, was certainly one, as the Gunners put in a superb performance to put three goals past Milan, who had no response. But as well as that, a tinge of regret – despite the heroics, there were one or two “What if?”s that Arsenal fans couldn’t help but to ask.
The main one was regarding the man pictured above. 32 goal Robin van Persie. A man whose goals have carried Arsenal this season – although this is not to say that the Gunners are a one-man team; simply that van Persie is more often than not the man who puts the ball in the back of the net – and whose left foot has been compared by many to a wand.
What luck, then, just the luck that Arsenal needed in fact, that the ball would drop to that same foot mid-way through the second half, after Christian Abbiati had only parried Gervinho’s blocked attempt. With the goalkeeper on the floor, surely the most clinical Arsenal player since Thierry Henry would finish off an incredible – in the full meaning of the word, not the all-too-common modern day hyperbole – four-goal comeback.
However, it wasn’t to be. Disbelief, all around, as van Persie stood in agony as Abbiati leapt to his feet, ball in hand. In hindsight, the dinked finish was probably the wrong kind, although credit must go to Abbiati. Still, watching the replay of the vital miss again, one can’t help but beg for van Persie to smash the ball past the goalkeeper and spark wild celebrations at an already-buzzing Emirates Stadium. If only football, and indeed life, worked like that.
Sadly it doesn’t, and van Persie must live with his miss. But if Arsene Wenger’s players showed anything on the night it was that infamous mental strength, which the Frenchman so often reiterated in his press conferences. Many would laugh at him as he insisted that his players were strong, but it seems he was vindicated, and even his fiercest critics may have to admit that he was right after all.
Some might argue that it was the fans’ infectious belief that transferred to the players, though that is but a trivial aspect of the game. What matters most is that the players summoned the belief, one way or another, to battle their way back to 4-3 on aggregate. They refused to sit down and admit defeat, even late in the second half when they were visibly exhausted from the super-human effort to claw the tie back to such a small overall deficit. It was clear, though, that not even their belief could carry an injury-ravaged, burnt-out side over the line. Arsenal had certainly made the impossible seem infinitely possible, but fell just short of ascending the Everest-like mountain they had created for themselves.
In the first half, Max Allegri’s side had little response to the intensity and spirit of Arsenal’s game. They pressed and pressed, harrying Milan, not giving the opposition any time to rest or to even think on the ball. Arsenal were hungry for the ball, hungry to atone for the errors at the San Siro. With the speed of the players at Arsene Wenger’s disposal, it was always going to be promising winning the ball back high up the pitch, and the likes of Tomas Rosicky set out to do just that.
The only problem with that was the all-too-real possibility that the Gunners would run out of steam. Wenger’s options suddenly decimated by injuries after the Liverpool match, he had just two specialist midfielders in the first team available, in Rosicky (who passed a late fitness test having been a doubt) & Alex Song. Oxlade-Chamberlain was the natural choice to be the third man in midfield, given that he played in the centre of the park for Southampton several times. Indeed, he displayed the talents which saw him picked there by Nigel Adkins at St Mary’s, despite the likes of Graeme Souness admitting he “didn’t realise [Chamberlain] could play there”.
As mentioned on Chronicles of Almunia before the game, it does seem as if the England youngster will end up in the centre of the park. He certainly has the attributes – upper body strength, an eye for a pass, a wonderful drive on the ball and a talent for long-range strikes. What hadn’t been apparent until last night, however, was how far he’s come defensively since his last Champions League appearance at the Emirates. Against Olympiakos, despite scoring, he was criticised for his lack of defensive nous, but showed significant improvement in that area against the European giants of Milan.
It was not only his stamina but his defensive contribution that Arsene Wenger had worried about before letting ‘The Ox’ loose, but now he is willing to throw his summer signing into the deep end. This faith in his discipline in tracking back was undoubtably repaid – in a deeper midfield role than he might be used to, Chamberlain curbed his attacking instincts well at times to cover for Song, when the Cameroon anchorman went on a pressing foray. The ex-Southampton man even covered at centre back at one point.
Chamberlain did make a few telling contributions going forward, of course – none more so than his bursting run from deep into the opposition penalty area, when he was brought tumbling down as the filling in a sandwich of Djamel Mesbah and Antonio Nocerino, the former bundling him over to concede a penalty. As Michael Cox said over at Zonal Marking, Arsenal decided to target Milan’s left hand-side in particular, which meant Gervinho was fairly quiet. The African Cup of Nations also took a lot out of him, which may have contributed further to his muted performance.
Laurent Koscielny also profited from Oxlade-Chamberlain’s good play, bundling home his corner with either his head or the top of his shoulder. The French centre-back was magnificent once again, marshaling Ibrahimovic many a time to keep the big Swede relatively quiet. His runs having dropped deep usually pose a problem for sides, but Arsenal played the offside trap to perfection, catching him offside probably around 10 times.
Another Arsenal player who can be particularly proud of his individual performance is Tomas Rosicky. The Czech midfielder was marvellous in midfield, imperious even, as he played a huge part in dragging Arsenal to the brink of glory. He was buzzing around in midfield like an angered wasp, ready to sting at any point, and indeed his near-post strike which beat Abbiati would have stung the Italian goalkeeper considerably. It was though an excellent finish, measured to perfection, just out of reach for the man between the sticks.
Rosicky has so long been tortured by injuries but has this season finally shown consistency in his performances, and it seems as if the 31-year-old is back to his former brilliant self. Arsenal have seldom seen this side of Rosicky – perhaps due to the likes of Cesc Fabregas playing in the favoured position of “the Little Mozart”, but in the absence of a playmaker, Rosicky has well and truly stepped up to fill the gap.
However, the midfield schemer visibily tired in the second half, clearly unable to influence the game as he had in the first 45 minutes. The same could be said for a lot of the Arsenal side out there though – it was never going to be easy sustaining the level of intensity and pressure they had managed to perform to in the opening period of the game. It was then that the lack of options really became apparent – Wenger threw on Park Ju-Young and Marouane Chamakh, but neither of the strikers could push the Gunners over the line.
It was no surprise that Arsenal tired – their squad has been stretched so tightly as a consequence of injuries, in midfield especially as Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby have failed to complete a full 90 minutes between them. Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta, Yossi Benayoun, Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong all joined their fellow midfielders on the sidelines, which left Oguzhan Ozyakup, a 17-year-old reserve midfielder, as Arsenal’s only option to bring on in the middle of the park.
Once the Gunners’ injuries ease, which should be soon given the hopefully short-term nature of many of their midfielders’ knocks, it will be considerably easier to manage the strains of pressing at such a high level game-by-game. There will be the option of bringing tired players off, as well as rotation between games to allow players like Rosicky the rest which they surely would need after such an effort.
If this turns out to be the case, and Arsenal are able to produce similar performances, they stand in good stead for the future. The clouds seem to be lifting once more, and given the high-profile nature of Arsenal’s successive scalps, you could forgive Arsene Wenger for hoping that this string of results is not just another false dawn before his side plummets back into the abyss. Perhaps the future is bright after all.
It was a match which more than lived up to its billing, which, considering the recent history of the fixture, was certainly justified before-hand. But nobody could have expected that outcome. While the fact that Tottenham were 2-0 up in the first half would suggest that they were all over Arsenal, this isn’t true; for the first five minutes, Arsenal were a little shaky but for the remaining 85 they absolutely dominated their rivals.
A key part in this was played by Arsenal’s midfielders – mainly Tomas Rosicky & Mikel Arteta, although Alex Song also did his bit. The performance in midfield was similar to that of Jack Wilshere & Aaron Ramsey against Manchester United, with Song again performing the foiling role as the anchor.
As the young midfielders did against the Red Devils last season, the more experienced Rosicky & Arteta shared the responsibilities in the middle of the field. The two took turns as the highest presser alongside Robin van Persie, while the other sat just in front of Alex Song winning the ball and helping Arsenal keep it. When the Gunners were in possession, Arteta and Rosicky were always offering an option, and both made driving runs from midfield to give Arsenal intensity and dynamism.
The duo always harried Tottenham in possession, which was one of the vital things in Arsenal’s performance – high pressure. Tottenham couldn’t cope with their players being relentlessly pressed, and Arteta & Rosicky were crucial in that. They embodied Arsenal’s spirit, fight and also technical assurance; and they gave the energy that has been lacking when Aaron Ramsey has played.
With Alex Song picking up his own slack in the second half, Arsenal’s performance improved, with Arteta & Rosicky free to get forward. Song’s increased defensive discipline paid off, with the Cameroon international winning many crucial interceptions and helping to start moves off. In some recent games Arsenal’s midfield has been slightly invisible and overrun also, but the complete opposite can be said of today. Indeed, Arteta made 75 successful passes, more than the combined total of any two Tottenham players (via EPL Index).
Rosicky’s eagerness to get forward was epitomised in his goal (one this particular blogger in fact predicted before the game) when he drove forward, gave the ball to Sagna and sped on into the box to flick the ball past Brad Friedel. Goals from midfielders, and in fact key contributions from midfielders in general have been missing this season without Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere, but Rosicky showed a hunger that has arguably been missing for a while now.
Another player who played a key role (although you could make a case for every man on the pitch for Arsenal) was Yossi Benayoun, whose tireless work on the left flank helped Arsenal’s cause hugely. Wenger’s men slightly ended up in a lop-sided 4-4-2 – Theo Walcott naturally moved closer towards Robin van Persie, while Benayoun had a tendency to drop back into midfield.
The compactness of Tottenham proved resistant to Arsenal at times, although they found a way through by working the wings and hitting the ball into the box. The presence of two specialist full-backs in Sagna and Gibbs, on their preferred sides also, made a big difference as they both got down the wings to overlap to good effect.
Putting the ball into the box eventually paid off with Sagna emphatically heading home Arteta’s precise cross. Tottenham then couldn’t get the ball clear, with Arsenal winning every ball, and van Persie picked the ball up, spun past his markers and curled home a magnificent effort.
The second half was perfect from Arsenal though. Arteta & Rosicky in particular were pressing and cajoling, producing sublime performances in the middle of the park. The sharing of the midfield burden was delightful to see, and the intensity of Arsenal’s play even more so.
The hunger and drive from the Gunners was what was different from usual – it has been seen in the second halves of the Aston Villa and Manchester United matches in particular, and now again versus, as Bacary Sagna puts it, “the enemy”. The common factor between those three performances? Tomas Rosicky. With that, I bid you a good night.
There would be little point in going over the same negative critiques as everybody else – it would add little to the debate and be very repetitive, not to mention rather detrimental. So instead, this post will discuss some of the positives that can be taken from the Arsenal – Manchester United game.
Let’s start with Laurent Koscielny, a player I (among several others) have long been championing. All season long (and before that too) he has been absolutely superb, barely putting a foot wrong. He kept that up on Sunday, with his immaculate defensive play one of the highlights for Arsenal. As always his tackles were precise and clean, and he was dominant in the air.
Indeed, he was the one who started the attack for Robin van Persie’s goal. He robbed Rafael of the ball expertly, and having carried it out of defence, fired a pass into Tomas Rosicky. Rosicky played a lovely ball to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who set up van Persie to fire home. Koscielny loves to come out of defence with the ball and it is one of the many things that endears him to Arsene Wenger. He loves a ball-playing centre back, and appears to have found a superb one in Koscielny. I’d say he’s quite easily the best defender at the club. There aren’t many better in England right now either.
The manner of Arsenal’s goal was unsurprising and perhaps telling, as it was made by the three stand-out players of the game for the Gunners. After the contribution of Laurent Koscielny came Tomas Rosicky‘s. He found himself in acres of space when found by Koscielny, and lobbed an excellent pass into the path of Oxlade-Chamberlain. Rosicky was easily the best out of Arsenal’s midfield trio, constantly looking for space and helping keep the ball. His dynamic runs on the ball were a great help in starting attacks for the home side, and filled in well for Mikel Arteta.
There have been many times when Rosicky has been written off by most but once again he’s come back and shown his true colours. If he could gain some more consistency in his performances (which are in fairness not very consistent themselves numbers-wise; he often gets thrown in due to injury, instead of being played in a rotation system, something which would probably decrease Arsenal’s injuries as they wouldn’t be relying on players so heavily) he would be seen as a very valuable member of Arsene Wenger’s squad. For now he should be seen as a great fill-in for Mikel Arteta – it is just a shame that Aaron Ramsey is also filling in for Jack Wilshere and is suffering from that reliance on him. It’s never easy when a team is forced to play two second choice midfielders, especially for Arsenal as it’s where the majority of their play comes from.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was the third player involved in the goal before the finishing touch from Robin van Persie and had been having an eye-catching game. His buzzing runs and powerful play created a few openings for Arsenal; a chance spurned by Theo Walcott and one narrowly missed by Aaron Ramsey were both set up by Oxlade-Chamberlain. He finally got the assist he had been working for when captain van Persie drilled home after great work from the youngster.
He repeatedly turned United’s full backs and covering players inside out, and did so again for the goal. Any worries about him not being mentally ready for the big-time seem to have been soothed. Physically he may not be ready 100% as was shown by Wenger bringing him off (although his critics will argue against that point) but that will be easy to improve on.
Talking about the game as a whole, 2-1 is a completely respectable score-line. Arsenal were poor in the first half, but the second half saw them take control. It was a very promising display; they seized upon mistakes (see Rosicky robbing Smalling) and despite missing chances it would have pleased Arsene Wenger, despite the direction the game took in the end. His side have lost by the same score to Manchester United many a time before, and there certainly wasn’t as much hysteria then.
Clearly Arsenal are suffering from injuries to key players; Bacary Sagna, Andre Santos, Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta would all have started, and Gervinho is also missing. Not only that but the replacements for those players aren’t all fit – Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs are both on the sidelines too. 2-1 against the champions is hardly a terrible result. It could have gone either way too – if Arsenal had made more of their period of dominance they could have easily gone ahead.
The point is not that the negatives are irrelevant or even not there. Just that they aren’t all that there is.