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.
For a while now, Arsenal have been rigid – the layout of their team has been rigid, their general play has been rigid and because of this, results have suffered. On Sunday, we saw the complete opposite.
One of the main reasons for this was the fact that Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs are both back and getting closer to full fitness. With centre-backs at full back, Arsenal suffered – their 4-3-3 never shifted shape, and therefore the Gunners were quite predictable. The wingers had to stay wide to give width in attack, which saw Robin van Persie isolated and the midfielders outnumbered many times.
With specialist full backs, who became wing backs in attack, all of that changed. The knock-on effect of Sagna and Gibbs being back cannot be understated. Instead of sticking to a rigid 4-3-3, Arsenal’s formation evolved on the attack into something resembling a 3-4-2-1.
Alex Song, the anchorman, dropped in front of the centre backs, at times playing between them for security in case Tottenham countered. The full backs became wing backs, and even wide midfielders at times, with the two central midfielders (in this case Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta, who both had excellent games) in between. The wingers – Yossi Benayoun and two-goal hero Theo Walcott – could then come inside and offer support to Robin van Persie, who was by no means isolated.
It was vital that the full backs offered width for a few reasons. Firstly, it meant that the wide players – most notably Walcott, although Benayoun had a great chance by virtue of this – could come closer to Robin van Persie, and offer him support. As the full backs were available to put crosses into the box, the wide players were free to get into the box and it was a big help for Arsenal to have more numbers inside the area, instead of just van Persie.
Alex Song was another player who particularly saw the effects of having the full backs in the team again. With Gibbs and Sagna offering support, there was much less need for Song to bomb forward to make up the numbers in attack. This gave Arsenal some much needed security, with Rosicky and Arteta free to help in attack with Song sitting – although one of Rosicky and Arteta usually was more reserved while the other was the higher midfielder.
The role of Yossi Benayoun compared to the alternative of Gervinho cannot be understated, and it was clear that Arsene Wenger got that decision absolutely spot on. Rather than hugging the line, as Gervinho would have, he came inside to support van Persie and pressed relentlessly with Arteta and Rosicky in particular.
The full backs were vital in so many ways, and Sagna was a massive help in attack too. As well as his goal, he did superbly to charge forward and to assist Tomas Rosicky for the third Arsenal goal. Kieran Gibbs helped Alex Song build up the move with a neat one-two early on, before Sagna bombed on on the other flank as Arsenal scored a thrilling team goal. Make no mistake – this was how Arsenal should be playing.
Returning to the role of Alex Song, it was interesting to notice his roles in four out of the five goals. While he did sit between or in front of the centre backs when Arsenal were on the attack, he helped to really turn the screw when Arsenal needed to up the pressure on their rivals. Although Song did venture forward at those times, crucially, he did not foray past Rosicky and Arteta, and this discipline was important. Song instead did what he’s best at – bringing the ball out of defence, playing balls into the box, and with more players around the area Arsenal were able to thrive on those balls.
It was Song’s pass, flicked on by Walcott, which led to van Persie striking the post, before Sagna (again in support) headed home. Song then, after some neat footwork, played the ball into the Spurs area for it to be cleared to van Persie, who of course turned and finished with aplomb. Song, as mentioned earlier, combined with Kieran Gibbs to get the ball into the captain and out of trouble for the third goal, before sprinting forward to make up the numbers in place of Benayoun. And then the fifth and final goal, a direct assist – more sumptuous, dancing footwork before an excellent ball for Walcott, who again was running through the middle as he does best.
Robin van Persie also reaped the rewards of the change. With Arsenal’s full backs overlapping, the wingers could come inside. Van Persie could then drop deep while the wingers made runs and occupied the centre backs. This was very difficult for Tottenham to handle, shown by Theo Walcott’s second goal especially.
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.