Where Did It All Go Wrong: An Analysis of how Arsenal lost the title

Monday, 11th February, Emirates Stadium

Emmanuel Adebayor’s injury time strike assured Arsenal remained in firm control of the Premier League title race with a 2-0 victory over Blackburn. At this point the Gunners were sitting pretty on top of the table with a five point break having 19 wins, 6 draws and only 1 loss from 26 games. Arsenal was playing the best football the premiership had seen since the Invincibles.

“Overall we controlled the game. We knew when to hold the ball and to accelerate. We could have scored more” Arsene Wenger after Arsenals 3-0 win over Newcastle

“It’s difficult when you’re facing a team as skilful and good at keeping the ball as Arsenal.” Roy Hodgson

Fast forward to the end of April and the Gunners sit in 3rd position. Their hopes of a premiership title are ruined after only 2 wins in their last 9 matches. A succession of draws epitomized the Gunners inability to put teams away, a trademark of the team less than 5 years ago, when we last won the title.

The downward spiral begun with 4 consecutive draws against weaker oppostition (Birmingham, Aston Villa, Wigan and Middlesbrough) and then reached its point with losses to both the Gunners major competitors; Man U and Chelsea.

Soon the match reports were reading slightly differently

“He had a clear sight of goal but only succeeded in sending his effort into Van der Sar’s arms”

“Arsenal were once again left frustrated”

“The ball fell to Bendtner just inside the area but the Dane’s first-time shot was weak and straight at a grateful Reina.”

“Arsenal were clean in on goal again when Emmanuel Eboue beat the offside trap and got away down the right. However, his low cutback towards Cesc Fabregas was cleared by the retreating Martin Skrtel.”

“Fabregas floated the ball over to Kolo Toure on the penalty spot, but the defender sent his free header wide.”

While the existence of the collapse is undoubted, the reasons behind it are still largely unknown. Most people point the finger at Wenger and his inability to increase the depth of his squad. Citing the fact that during our premiership run only 8 players have made more than 20 appearances for us. This is the same number as Liverpool, who are the infamous exponents of the rotation policy. There may be some weight to this argument as Wenger’s side lacked their usual rhythm and sharpness when playing Gilberto Silva in the Champion’s League against Liverpool. They weren’t as clinical in their finishing without Van Persie and often found themselves pinning their hopes on Nicklas Bendtner, who had spent the previous season on loan at Championship dwelling Birmingham City and who, despite his potential is far from premiership winning standard.

While there is no doubt that our bench is never as strong as Manchester United’s against Roma (including Giggs and Tevez), our injury crisis cannot have helped. Despite this Wenger made some very odd decisions regarding selection, when he could have possibly covered injuries a little better when it comes to our backline.

At the start of the season our backs lined up as follows:

Sagna——Toure——-Gallas—–Clichy

Sagana’s injury was a big blow for us, but the obvious move was to place Emmanuel Eboue, who had made the right back spot his own post-Lauren and pre-Sagna into his favourite position, preventing the need to disturb the backline. However, Wenger took a different approach.

Toure—–Senderos—–Gallas—–Clichy

It seems that Wenger has always had a soft spot for the mistake prone back with Sendeeros taking over the mantle from Cygan. Thank god we didn’t sign Bramble or Boumsong!!! Later on we were even seeing Alexandre Song, a Natural Defensive Midfielder being played at centre back. To add further problems, Toure, who had become on of the premierships most respected centre-backs was put on the right. Despite being versatile he never has looked comfortable there and his positioning has been slightly off a few times. The fullback position is a real art and the only person who has ever slotted straight into a fullback spot immediately is Steven Gerrard, who is probably the most versatile player in world football.

The midfield has had less injury problems, despite the loss of Tomas Rosicky being a major blow. The biggest example of our lack of depth is Gilberto. As much as I like the guy, he simply is past his best. At the age of 31 players are losing what is probably Gilberto’s major strength……his strength. He is physically slower and weaker and cannot keep up with his opponents, leading to clumsy challenges and uncharacteristic slide tackles. It was one of these challenges that gave Man U the freekick that ended our Premiership hopes. Perhaps Alex Song could have been better utilized here and with Flamini all but certainly going to Juventus, we are either going to turn to an out of sorts Gilberto or turn to a seemingly out of favour Denilson, who is yet to reach the heights we hoped for.

Up front however is where we were hit the hardest.

A Wenger 4-4-2 has never really been a 4-4-2. With Dennis Bergkamp dropping deep into the ‘thread zone’ as it is often known (the space between the oppositions defensive line and midfield) he was able to provide constant supply to Henry up front and Ljungberg, Vieira and Pires etc. who were making runs from deep. Since his retirement, Wenger has almost seen it as a necessity to have a deep-lying centre forward in his line-up. So he bought and converted two highly technical strikers to fill the role: Robin Van Persie and Eduardo. It is no coincidence that we started to struggle when we lost both of these players. This is not just due to the injury crisis and our squad depth, but our tactical inflexibility.

Wenger’s reaction to the injuries highlighted this problem. He decided to play Theo Walcott in the same role as Van Persie and Eduardo. It would take a whole new article just to write half the differences between RVP and Eduardo and Walcott, but here some of the blatantly obvious ones:

  • RVP and Eduardo often ‘stop running’ and the ball is played forward to allow them to drift into the ‘thread zone’. They are also experts at timing runs toward the central midfielders to pull centre backs out of create space for themselves. Walcott on the other hand is a specialist at making forward runs and throughout his career has not been made to make too many runs the other way.
  • RVP and Eduardo can shoot from range, take on players and score goals. All of these abilities are major strengths in their games. The ability to pass is probably the most important of these in the ‘Bergkamp role’. Walcott’s strengths are those of a winger: speed, can beat a man and can cross a ball. He can score goals, but not with amazing frequency, but unlike Bergkamp, he can’t compensate with an amazing pass.

Walcott could often be found drifting out toward the right, trying to dribble in field, taking on 5 players and then cutting it back from the byline, much more complicated the effortlessness the Bergkamp played with.

It is these situation where Wenger should have considered at least minor tactical adjustments, because it has gotten to the point where Wenger is starting to be a bit like Arrigo Sacchi, believing that his system will always work and while I have the utmost respect for Wenger and believe that we play the best football in Europe, I feel that we lack that cutting edge. To draw comparison to the Invincibles, both teams played beautiful football, but the Invincibles would play the penetrating pass whenever a player got into space, they would put team away, winning 4, 5, 6 or even 7-0. They were masters of the three elements of possession (width, depth and penetration). The current side just lacks that penetration in the final 3rd.

Various respected pundits have drawn comparison between our current side and Ajax of the early 70s, the exponents of Total Football, but they point out that, when we are confronted by a wall of defenders in the final third we always try to score the perfect goal by going around them, where as Cruyff would have gone through them. This is the problem Barca had against Man U this morning in the Champions League. The kept going to the byline and cutting it back with such monotony that the United centre backs would stand on their six yard box, take one step forward and win the ball every time.

The way we play destroys poor team such as Slavia Prague, but we cannot break average teams, as we saw in our four consecutive draws. Not once this season have we been outplayed. This is shown domestically by the fact that all our losses were by one goal and we outplayed our opponents in each game. The problem is that all our wins have been by 3 goals or less (and only 3 of those were by 3 goals). This is mainly due to our reliance on Fabregas and Adebayor in the final third.

A quick glance at the premierleague.com statistics page shows an alarming statistic. Adebayor is the 3rd highest scorer in the premiership with 12 goals. As you scroll down the page you discover no other Arsenal player in the top 20. Our next highest player is Fabregas, who is equal 24th with a grand total of 7 goals for the term. Our 5th highest scorer is William Gallas with 4. The assists aren’t much prettier. Fabregas leads the league with 18, the comes Hleb with 7. He finds himself equal 17th. Early in the season both Adebayor and Fabregas were in form, scoring freely and we were winning. After the Blackburn game Adebayor went 7 games without a goal. We went 5 games without a win. Fabregas hasn’t scored in the Premiership since November 3rd.

Our dependence has gotten so bad that out of our 67 goals scored in the league, more came from outside the box (28) than the Penalty Area (20) and the Six-yard Box (19).

It is important to look at specifics when analysing our collapse this season. I am sure that I have missed bit here and there, but my hope is that we can learn from our mistakes and take the title next season.

Written by Justin McMahon

3 Responses to “Where Did It All Go Wrong: An Analysis of how Arsenal lost the title”

  1. swji Says:

    Brilliant stuff there. Great analysis.

  2. Yoosof Farah Says:

    Well done mate. It’s a really good analysis, and I especially liked the way you talked about the match reports reading slightly differently and incorporated quotations.

  3. ROBBIE Says:

    GOOD WORK% rite

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