Throughout the season I’ll be writing Arsenal Player of the Month articles in collaboration with the well-known CWDComps, who will be producing a video of the player’s exploits during the month.
Despite two underwhelming 0-0 draws against Sunderland and Stoke, home and away respectively, when Mr CWD and I sat down to discuss the candidates (figuratively) there were a few that came to mind. Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson and Santi Cazorla were mentioned, but eventually we settled on our other Spanish midfielder.
So congratulations to Mikel Arteta! The first winner of the not-yet-prestigious CoA Player of the Month, in association with CWD. We knew from his time at Everton that he was very technically gifted, but we mostly saw that in the final third, with several fantastic goals and excellent assists. Last season he was more disciplined, playing the steady role in midfield, always offering an option and spraying passes around with supreme precision. His passing was incredibly accurate, and his completion percentage was usually 90% or higher.
However, this season he’s reigned his game even more, and in the first two games has been the main holding player, with Abou Diaby breaking forwards from the pivot. He constantly looked to make interceptions and start off attacks by playing the ball into the more advanced players – he and Cazorla linked up well throughout both games, exchanging 15 passes against Stoke and 29 against Sunderland, the highest in each game.
Arteta mostly did the dirty work in midfield, mopping up where it was needed and wrestling the ball from advancing midfielders. He demonstrated his tactical awareness many times by appearing in exactly the right place in midfield time and again, and while it wasn’t anything spectacular, someone has to do it, and Arteta did it splendidly well.
As our new vice-captain he’s expected to lead the team alongside Vermaelen, and he seemed to help organise the players well against Stoke in particular. The organisation was better than ever before, and the team was very compact and solid, thanks in part to Arteta holding his position in front of the defence. He also covered well for full backs Jenkinson and Gibbs when needed, and that’s been a key thing of Arteta’s short Arsenal career – using his experience to shore up the team and help out in any way that he can.
His determination and drive were apparent throughout both games, and his dogged dedication was shown several times as he nipped in to win the ball, with 4 interceptions against Sunderland and 3 against Stoke. While he’s not physically imposing, he uses his body cleverly, throwing himself into challenges and using his guile to his advantage, and these were all things we saw against Sunderland and Stoke.
All in all, despite no goals, it was a good month for Mikel Arteta, with the two clean sheets reflecting his stellar work in front of the defence. He said he wants to score more goals, but I think with that sort of defensive contribution, people won’t be too bothered if he doesn’t score that many.
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.
Right now it seems appropriate to kick off CoA’s summer series “Unsung Heroes” with a tribute to Mikel Arteta – the Spaniard has just been named Arsenal’s 5th best player this season on the official website poll. You might consider this a good thing, however, it just goes to show how unappreciated Arteta still is. Along with Laurent Koscielny and Robin van Persie, Arteta has been one of Arsenal’s three most consistent players, and without him the Gunners struggled massively.
So what better way for me to blow the dust off of my metaphorical blogging typewriter than to write glowingly about the midfielder after he received a paltry 4.1% of the votes in the Player of the Season poll? Although perhaps therein lies the problem with the poll – most would have voted for Robin van Persie, leaving the remaining places essentially a popularity contest. If the voting was for the top 3 players of the season, perhaps the result would have been more accurate, as the top 3 surely had to be Koscielny, Arteta and van Persie. But I’ve already digressed enough.
It seems traditional/clichéd when praising a player to begin with a somewhat nostalgic flash-back to when they first joined the club, so here goes. In a flurry of deadline day activity at Arsenal, the midfield was seen as the most pressing concern, considering that Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas had left and their playmaking abilities were yet to be replaced. A number of midfield names were linked, before it boiled down to Arteta, a slightly under-whelming choice at the time, seeing as Mario Goetze had been rumoured, among others.
But after some twists in the tale, Arteta eventually made the move to Arsenal, which was admittedly met with some cynicism within the Arsenal fanbase. A good player, yes, but he had injury problems, was quite old, and was nowhere near the calibre of Cesc Fabregas. However, it became clear that Arsene Wenger had not planned for Arteta to replace Fabregas, but instead had decided upon a midfield reshuffling: Arteta and Alex Song sitting in front of the defence, with another player in the “Fabregas role”; Aaron Ramsey was earmarked, but Jack Wilshere seemed the best choice, once he returned from that brief injury lay-off.
With Arteta’s Spanish origin, especially having come from Barcelona’s La Masia academy, it was expected that he would be the more creative of the pivot he was deployed in alongside Alex Song. However, unintentionally or not, Song was the one who roamed more often, while Arteta sat back and gave Arsenal discipline and safety. This was clearly missed sorely when Arteta was absent – Arsenal won just once in the league without him, drawing four times and losing four times.
The metronomic 30-year-old was forever an option while Arsenal had the ball, and was remarkably calm on it, showing superb poise to help Arsenal retain possession and build up attacks patiently. As well as the ball-retention skills he brought to the team, he also brought hard work and the ability to win the ball back and break up opposition attacks; he credits this to his time with Rangers in the SPL, and this “dirty work” was vital to Arsenal.
As well as fulfilling all of the tasks his role demanded him to, when he went on a rare foray forwards it was well-timed and often resulted in success for Arsenal. This usually happened when the Gunners were struggling to break a team down – they pushed further up the field, penning back the opposition, and Arteta went forwards more often. This was most evident against Tottenham when 2-0 down; Arteta played a crucial role in Bacary Sagna’s goal to make it 2-1.
While Alex Song’s assists and the rejuvenation of Tomas Rosicky will possibly trump Arteta in the poll, little notice should be paid to his fifth-placed finish. Although those were both important to Arsenal’s success in gaining Champions League football, what they both lacked was consistency, something Arteta displayed through-out the season (that goes without saying I suppose, as otherwise his consistency would be inconsistent). Not the most spectacular of players, the Spanish midfielder rarely won the man-of-the-match award at Arsenal, but was always a solid performer; ever-reliable in a season when Arsenal desperately needed stability.
It was no fluke either – he says himself that he tries to give balance to the team, despite perhaps wanting more freedom, which he must be given credit for. Arteta is more than happy to go about his business quietly, while others take the plaudits, but after Arsenal’s resurrection, praise must be reserved for their number 8.
If the way in which Arsenal won the ball for the winner typified their vibrant performance, the way in which the goal came perhaps didn’t. While there were few players closing Mikel Arteta down, it was from roughly 25 yards out and wasn’t exactly a clear-cut chance. On the other hand, the chances that the home side had created were all good opportunities – Robin van Persie’s header which was cleared off the line by Thomas Vermaelen (shades of Fabregas denied by Bendtner vs Liverpool in the Champions League), his other header which hit the post, Theo Walcott’s effort which was tipped onto the woodwork by compatriot Joe Hart, and then the chances that subsequently fell to Vermaelen and then Yossi Benayoun, who both contrived to miss. And then, of course, the miss by Aaron Ramsey in the dying embers of the game.
Samir Nasri lined up on the opposing side, and it’s been said by some that Arsenal lack the technical quality they benefitted from last season after the sales of Nasri and Fabregas. This may be somewhat true, but Arsene Wenger has adjusted the game plan for Arsenal to suit his new-look squad – the new style has been of great help to the midfield trio of Alex Song, Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta in particular.
Emphasis remains on possession, but there’s more of a directness to Arsenal which explains the quality of the chances they created. Some teams do set up to prevent them from carving out those chances, which sees them revert to the intricate passing moves at times.
Manchester City managed to frustrate them at times, which saw an increased emphasis on crosses. Arsenal seem to have improved this as the plan B though – instead of hitting high, hopeful balls into the box, the likes of Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott fire low balls into the box for Robin van Persie and co. to predate on.
Speaking of Sagna, it was interesting to note the space he had down the right hand side, in the second half in particular. City had quite a narrow line-up with no truly natural wide player – Mario Balotelli was on the left for them, and either drifted inside or refused to track back. This gave Sagna room to roam, and the pace of Theo Walcott meant that Gael Clichy was pinned back in order to stop Walcott getting in behind him – even if the England winger didn’t manage to get past the full-back a whole lot.
As many have already said, the battle was mainly won in midfield though. The trio of Gareth Barry, James Milner and David Pizarro were overrun by Song, Arteta and Rosicky – the former’s ball-shielding talents came to the fore in particular, even if the Cameroonian frustrated by giving the ball away cheaply a few times. Rosicky didn’t have the best game creativity wise – although he did make one “key pass”, he still didn’t quite seem to be on his game, although perhaps recent performances have raised standards.
Mikel Arteta completed a magnificent 94% of his passes, which is pretty usual for the Spaniard in fairness. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the way he won the ball by snapping at Pizarro was typical of his performance and him as a player for Arsenal – a midfield dynamo, who presses intensely and is excellent at winning the ball back.
Going back to Arsenal on the whole, it was a typical home performance, full of intensity and fast passing. There was a lot of patient switching of the ball from left to right and vice versa, which was Arsenal’s way of stretching the opposition defence and waiting for space to open up. The selection of Yossi Benayoun was important, and gave Arsene Wenger’s side variety and more of the energy which helped them to all three points.
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.
It is slightly fitting that the previous post on this site was about Andre Villas-Boas, Jose Mourinho’s former protegé, with this post centring around another of Mourinho’s apprentices at Chelsea. Brendan Rodgers, like Villas-Boas (as mentioned in the last post), has seemed reluctant to entertain the idea of setting up like his one-time boss at Chelsea, preferring a continental tiki-taka style of football to Mourinho’s pragmatism.
Rodgers has come in for much praise for the free-flowing, attacking brand of football he’s had Swansea playing, especially seeing as they’re punching above their weight for a promoted team – indeed, one that only came up through the play-offs. After an uncertain start to the season in front of goal, Scott Sinclair and co. found their feet, and the Swans managed comfortable wins over the likes of Fulham, Aston Villa and Stoke, not to mention a draw with Liverpool at Anfield.
Instead of the defensive 4-5-1 which many promoted teams favour, Rodgers plays an open 4-3-3, with the emphasis on his three midfielders Joe Allen, Mark Gower and Leon Britton. Gower holds, while Britton and Allen roam around, exchanging passes freely. In fact, you could compare them to Barcelona’s midfield trio; Gower being Busquets, while Britton and Allen are Swansea’s Xavi and Iniesta.
The lively Sinclair and Nathan Dyer usually flank Danny Graham, a summer purchase from Watford, and ensure that Swansea retain width and guile. But Britton and Allen are the main men – they should both be commended for their appreciation of space and their excellent passing. Both have pass accuracies over 90%, and are the main reason behind Swansea topping the table for passes completed in the Premier League.
Despite this openness on the ball Swansea have managed to concede the joint-least amount of goals at home, maintaining a solidity to go with their fluidity. Rodgers deserves credit for sticking to his guns in the Premier League, and it appears that integrity is paying off. Swansea are a breath of fresh air compared to teams that just try to survive by packing men behind the ball. The adventurous style of Rodgers’ side is a joy to watch, and they’ve shown that it can be done to good effect when having just been promoted.
Hopefully this refreshing Swansea side will show future promoted sides that passing football is the way forward, as opposed to Stoke’s hoofball – also effective to an extent but not often entertaining. They will face a tough test against Arsenal though – this season, the Swans have arguably been Arsenal Lite, and when the student comes up against the master it’s usually the latter that comes out on top.
In the reverse fixture at the Emirates, the remarkable Michel Vorm made a rare error to gift Andrey Arshavin a goal – although it was a tidy finish from a difficult angle – but Danny Graham missed a glaring chance in the dying embers of the game and the Gunners were a bit fortunate to come away with all three points. In fairness it was quite a new-look Arsenal; Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta made their debuts, and Emmanuel Frimpong was still being integrated into the midfield.
It seems likely that matchwinner Arshavin will start at the Liberty Stadium. He showed signs of improvement against Leeds, and Arsene Wenger agreed that he needs consistent games to play at his full capacity. With Gervinho at the African Cup of Nations, Arsenal have little choice but to give Arshavin more game-time, so we may see improvement from Arshavin in the coming couple of months. Seeing as Swansea play an open game, it might be a match in which he thrives.
A player who has been in fine form lately is Mikel Arteta, who, like Swansea’s midfield dynamos, is trained in the art of tiki-taka. His time at Barcelona as a youth player saw him develop a superb reading of the game and his passing against Leeds was almost faultless. This impeccable passing is currently a big part of Arsenal’s game, and he’ll hope to put Swansea’s expansive passing in the shadows with his masterful poise and vision.