Arsenal's transfer activity this summer has been entirely uncharacteristic of Arsene Wenger Ã¢ÂÂ much to Gooners' delight. Alex Keble, editor of tactics website www.thechalkboard.org.uk, asks: can Arsenal finally challenge for the title?
The most consistent criticism of Arsenal over the past decade has been about the lack of variation in their playing style. With Arsene Wenger apparently unwilling to compromise his philosophy of a fluid, short-passing game, the old saw that "Arsenal try to pass the ball into the net" has been among the most-used clichÃÂ©s in football.
There's good reason for this. The statistics tells us that only 35% of Arsenal's shots last season were from outside the box Ã¢ÂÂ fewer than any other team in the league. With an astonishing 73% of their goals coming from extended periods of open play, they also managed just eight goals from set-pieces.
This isn't a problem the majority of the time, but in order to win the gritty games, to scrape victory when you are playing badly, to overcome rigid defences Ã¢ÂÂ in short, to play like champions Ã¢ÂÂ you simply cannot afford to be so one-dimensional. Man City scored 19 goals from set pieces last season, whilst 39% of their shots came from outside the box.
It hasn't always been like that: in 2008-09, no team scored more Premier League goals from set pieces or more headers than Arsenal. Nowadays, they can be too predictable, and good managers can work out how to stop them.
The Gunners struggled last season when faced with strong defences willing to sit deep, in lines of four, and soak up the pressure. As in the famous Barcelona-Chelsea fixture last season, deep, compact and patient defending can nullify a one-dimensional threat.
The screen grabs below, taken from games in which they failed to win, show the rarity with which Arsenal broke through the defensive lines, despite all the time they were given on the ball deep in the opposition half.
One-dimensionality: What Arsenal Need To Do
Arsenal's new signings Ã¢ÂÂ Lukas Podolski, Olivier Grioud and Santi Cazorla Ã¢ÂÂ should give them a whole new edge. Crosses and long balls have never been a big part of Wenger's strategy, but now the option has become available to him if, amid the desperation of games such as those against Stoke and Wigan, he needs to shake things up.
Last season, Theo Walcott's 0.5 crosses per game was the best they could hope for, and Arteta's 5.2 long balls per game (from the centre of the park) was their only outlet for direct football. This is reflected in the fact that only 15% of Arsenal's attempts on goal last season were headers Ã¢ÂÂ and this includes those coming from corners.
Santi Cazorla, a truly outstanding player that may instantly become one of the best players in the division, made an amazing 7.4 accurate long passes per game for Malaga, with 1.6 crosses per game. His tendency to mix things up will be greatly appreciated at the Emirates.
More significantly, Olivier Giroud was the best aerial player in the French league, winning 3.7 duels per match. An uncharacteristic signing, the new striker has excellent heading ability, which will provide a secondary outlet for Arsenal. Now that one of the best aerial players in football is amongst their ranks, crossing into the box may finally yield some results Ã¢ÂÂ if Wenger and his existing players are willing to play that way when necessary.
Arsenal amassed 74 league goals Ã¢ÂÂ not a bad haul, and behind only the two Manchester clubs. However, Robin van Persie scored 30 of them and assisted nine more, meaning that an alarming 53% of their goals involved the Dutch talisman.
His refusal to sign an new contract and subsequent potential departure Ã¢ÂÂ along with the rumours suggesting Arsenal might also lose Alex Song, who contributed 11 assists Ã¢ÂÂ mean that Arsenal will have to dramatically reconsider how they are going to score.
Van Persie's creativity has already been discussed at length in a previous article regarding a move to Man City, but his influence cannot be understated. In the screen grabs below, we can see his contribution extended far beyond his hat-tricks: over these two games he created five goalscoring chances.
The image of Song making a driving run before feeding the ball beautifully over the top for RvP to finish, was frequent footage on MotD last season. If either leaves, Arsenal will be in trouble.
Creativity: What Arsenal Need To Do
New signings Cazorla and Podolski can directly address this problem of creativity, if they continue to do what they did at their previous clubs. The former made five assists last season with 2.2 key passes per game, the latter created seven goals and made 1.3 key passes each game. They certainly provide more in a conventional Arsenal attacking sense than incumbent wingers Gervinho, Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
In terms of replacing Van Persie, Giroud is both a prolific goalscorer Ã¢ÂÂ netting 21 times for title-winning Montpellier Ã¢ÂÂ and a creator, providing nine assists and 1.3 key passes per game. This doesn't quite compare with RvP, but then again, it would be simply impossible for Wenger to replace that kind of quality like-for-like. Podolski scored an impressive 18 goals for Kohn last season, and his contribution in this area will be vital in 2012/13.
If we take Arsenal's highest-scoring striker, right-winger, and left-winger from last season (RvP, Walcott and Gervinho), we get a combined goals tally of 42. If we combine the goals of Giroud, Podolski and Cazorla from last campaign, we get a total of 48. Granted this calculation is a little bit reductionist and doesn't necessarily reflect the successes these signings will have at their new club, but it is still an indication that Arsenal may not miss RvP as much as is being predicted.
Despite their creative issues, Arsenal actually scored more goals last season than they did in their 2003/04 title-winning Invincibles season, when they amassed 90 points Ã¢ÂÂ one more than either Manchester club managed last campaign.
However, in that campaign Arsenal conceded a league-low 26 goals; last term they leaked 49, more than seven Premier League rivals Ã¢ÂÂ including Sunderland, who finished in the bottom half. Clearly they need to tighten up and regain the defensive solidity of their glory days.
As with any team using a short-passing style of football played high up the pitch, Arsenal are vulnerable to counter-attacks. A fluid, controlling style relies heavily on possession retention as its primary source of defence; when the ball is lost, large pockets of space behind the defence can be exploited.
The screen shots below, taken from games in which Arsenal conceded too frequently, show the way in which their opponents utilised the width of their wingers to break down Wenger's defence.
If Arsenal are to limit the frequency of these vulnerable situations, their two main areas for improvement are their ability to hold onto the ball and the defending of their wide men. Several of Arsenal's wingers gave the ball away too frequently (Arshavin had 74.4% pass completion, Walcott 79.3%, Benayoun 81.1%) Ã¢ÂÂ and furthermore they rarely helped out defensively. Even when Arsenal found themselves on the back foot, Wenger was lucky if his wingers made two tackles or interceptions in a single game.
Defence: What Arsenal Need To Do
If they are to win more often as a team, Arsenal need to defend as a team. Once again, we return to the magnificent Cazorla. It is no coincidence that Wenger has signed a winger that makes 2.2 tackles per game, and 2.6 interceptions per game. He will help out enormously at the back, as will Podolski, whose defensive work at Euro 2012 did not go unnoticed.
Coupled with Cazorla's 85% pass completion rate, Arsenal can rest assured that their wingers next season will be more complete and more reliable than in recent years.
Mooted signing Nuri Sahin is a technically assured central midfielder with an eye for a pass; he would not be a direct replacement for the physicality of Alex Song, but a good acquisition none the less.
How easily Van Persie's presence can be replaced is something nobody can predict. Either way, their chances of success next season rest on their new signings' abilities to adapt quickly to the English game. Cazorla and Giroud in particular will be expected to hit the ground running.
What these new signings should give them is a more dynamic attack, offering a style that breaks free of their 'one-dimensional' tag. Cazorla's creativity could set the league alight, whilst the experience of Podolski may add an extra touch of class to a side that often seems naÃÂ¯ve on the wings.
This could be an extremely important year for Wenger's team; after spending ÃÂ£44 million this summer, failure to challenge for the title would be a bit of a disaster, and quite possibly the last straw for players like Alex Song.
Of course, it is not certain that either RvP or Song will leave the club, in which case Arsenal, with three exciting new signings and more to follow, could look forward to a season of genuine promise.
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