In the 13 games played in the League this season, Arsenal’s longest winning streak is 2 games. It happened early on in September when the Gunners beat Liverpool and Southampton. Wenger’s side could have matched that with a win at Villa Park but a stalemate was all they could manage against a determined and disciplined opponent that also looked the more dangerous side at times.
Looking at any game in isolation, it’s difficult to ascertain just how much of an impact was made by the quality and performance of the opposing team. Did Arsenal drop two points because Villa played really well? Or Did Arsenal drop two points because they were ‘jaded’? Was it a combination of both of these factors and some others, and if so how much weight do we assign to each?
I thought Villa played really well but Arsenal weren’t all bad themselves. The Gunners created space in the attacking areas through their passing but their final ball was woeful. As a result there were few clear chances and only one shot on target. This inability to link meaningfully in the final third meant that all the work done behind was fruitless.
The tempo of Arsenal’s passing didn’t seem slow to me but they did have problems getting the ball out from the back. It wasn’t down to any obvious solitary factor. That said, Villa’s organization off-the-ball and their willingness to chase the ball without respite certainly put the Gunners under pressure. The inexperience on Arsenal’s right flank didn’t help matters either as neither Jenkinson, nor Oxlade-Chamberlain were able to make enough noteworthy contributions to the attack or build-up play.
There was another factor that seemed relevant. Lambert’s side were attacking a lot more down Arsenal’s left. Benteke was almost camped in that area and this kept Koscielny and Gibbs occupied. It also pulled Podolski back. We get a fair indication of this through Benteke’s dashboard and passes received charts.
Comparing Jenkinson’s performance against that of Gibbs is also helpful.
For those not familiar with the symbols used by this app, here is the legend: Green Diamond – interception; Circle – clearance; ^ – Aerial duel; Black triangle – foul conceded; Hexagon – take on; X – tackle; Orange colour represents successful, purple is a failed attempt. Passes are obvious.
It’s pretty clear Gibbs had a lot more defensive work, which corroborates well with Benteke’s dashboard and Villa’s general style of play as was seen on the pitch. Naturally, when a full-back is busy at the back his winger is likely to be dragged back as well. As a result of this, Arsenal had a hard time building attacks from the left because they had to start really deep and Villa always had bodies in those areas.
In comparison, Jenkinson has a much easier game. But he wasn’t able to contribute to the attack or the build-up as effectively as is expected at this level.
Jenkinson actually attempted a few more passes than Gibbs (53 vs 48) but he made fewer forward passes while twice as many went backward. We can see how Gibbs has tried building from deeper areas in the Arsenal half whereas Jenkinson played a lot of back passes from similar positions.
In fairness, the positioning of Villa players and their pressing played it’s part and one could argue it was a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach from the former Charlton man. But if Arsenal want to win such games, they need a lot more from their full-back. Even his touch was disappointing as two or three unforced errors come to mind when the team had space to push forward. He should be able to handle some pressure and contribute to the build-up.
Of course, he’s a young player with limited experience at this level. And when you start such players you have to accept their inefficiencies will become a part of the game. Unfortunately for the Gunners, the youngster in front of him had his own share of weaknesses.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s role in attack was also a factor in this ineffectiveness of Arsenal’s right flank. The youngster did get more involved with the play than he’s done in the past but his off-the-ball movement has a lot of room for improvement. Since Giroud often dropped deep in this game, AOC could and should have moved into areas vacated by the Frenchman but he rarely seemed aware of the spaces. He also seemed intent on getting the ball at his feet rather than making runs to receive the ball on the go.
Furthermore, the youngster’s decision making and execution was also just short of the required precision. For instance, in the 56th minute he made a very good run on the right after linking with Giroud but his final ball was just a tad short. Ramsey had to break his stride and the defender got a chance to influence the move. If the ball had been half a yard in front of him, the Welshman would have found it easier to direct it goalwards. Similarly, there was an excellent move in the 28th minute with Giroud and Ramsey combining around the centre line. Ramsey played a perfectly time ball for AOC that drew the full-back and left the winger in the clear, albeit in a wide position. The youngster took too long on the ball and couldn’t find the final ball for Podolski.
It’s somewhat harsh to criticize young players over such seemingly minor issues, but at this level such a degree of precision, or lack thereof, and the other issues discussed are usually the difference between a draw and win.
Nevertheless, the point here is not to single out two young players as scapegoats. The point is to merely illustrate the fact that young players, however hyped, tend to bring some inefficiencies into the team and it affects the performance of the unit.
Arsenal’s inability to build from the right side was also evident from the fact that Villa were happy to let Mertesacker have the ball. The German attempted 72 passes compared to 31 by Koscielny who was rarely free of the attentions of Benteke. It’s difficult to say whether it was a deliberate tactic or it just so happened because Villa were planning to attack down that flank. It could be that Lambert was aware of Koscielny’s ability to charge forward with the ball whereas Mertesacker was unlikely to drive into the opposing half. Indeed, the Frenchman did bomb forward in the 43rd minute and that resulted in, arguably, Arsenal’s best chance of the game that he himself blazed over.
Apart from the issues discussed thus far, Arsenal also had some other problems. Most notably, it seemed to me that Arteta and Cazorla were really knackered. This also brought an unexpected (or you might say it is to be expected as they’ve gotten much rest) degree of inefficiency to the team play.
There were many occasions when three or four Arsenal players entered the same 10 square yard area and kept playing passes to each other without any off-the-ball movement. It was as if they all wanted someone else to make something happen. Whether tiredness was the sole factor in this is unclear, but it certainly limited the fluidity of Arsenal’s passing and movement.
At the end of the day when you have one shot on target in 90 minutes of play, almost every player deserves his share of the blame. In fairness, Arsenal also did well to restrict Villa to two or three good chances. They’re a team who can be a handful, particularly at home, as Manchester United found out. Arsenal’s ability to move the ball and hold it under pressure contained the chances Villa could create on transitions.
Szczesny: Made one big save and a couple of other important ones but those are the kind you’d expect a Keeper to make. A steady game from the Pole without the need for anything spectacular.
Jenkinson: Discussed above in detail.
Mertesacker: Made two vital game-saving tackles. Was also in the right place at the right time on numerous occasions. MotM IMO, if anyone can be considered that after such a game.
Koscielny: Had one or two iffy moments, like the occasion when he clattered with Benteke but the striker was able to get up and in-behind. But he had a big defensive game otherwise and was on the end of a big chance. Would have been a great game if he put it in.
Gibbs: Another one who was discussed in detail above. Excellent defensive game, could have done better with his final ball on two or three occasions, but that’s been an issue from the beginning of the season and will only change with time.
Arsenal’s back four were largely untroubled even though there were a few oohs and aahs from the home fans. They got good cover from the midfield and did their defensive jobs effectively.
Arteta: Massive defensive effort from the Spaniard as he swept in front of the back four. At times he was the only one doing so and did exceptionally well to cut out many passes, and win a number of second balls and duels. Passing accuracy was again sensational but didn’t see as much of the ball as he usually does. Tiredness could be a factor, Villa’s marking could also be a factor, and the fact that he had a greater defensive responsibility was possibly one of the reasons.
Cazorla: Not up to his usual standard in this game. Passing accuracy was as low as 80 percent in the first half. Wasn’t able to move as effortlessly as he typically does. Still worked extremely hard and saw a lot of the ball. The work rate was there but the influence wasn’t. Just seemed to miss some kind of a spark.
Ramsey: Probably had his best game in an Arsenal shirt for a while. Worked extremely hard all over the pitch and was one of the few players who was trying to make something happen all the time. Whether it was that move to put AOC behind, the run to get on the end of the youngster’s cross, Arsenal’s only shot on target, the link up with Gibbs to find Podolski in the box, a vital header at the back post, the shot on the turn from outside the box, or a number of other such events – Ramsey was getting into the game all over the pitch. I don’t know if any Arsenal player has out-passed Arteta ever since the Spaniard came to the club. Ramsey did that in this game and by a fair margin (72/80 compared to 66/69). That work rate was also vital to holding off the Villa pressure and helped create spaces in the opposition half. If Ramsey had been as sloppy as Wilshere was against Montpellier, the Gunners might have conceded a couple of goals on the break. Because the overall team performance was poor, the Welshman’s work will largely go unnoticed, but in my opinion he was excellent in this game.
The midfield was noticeably deep when Villa had the ball and that allowed them to help the defence. They also kept the ball well under pressure which minimized the counter-attacking chances that Villa could create. Too many players across the pitch were off the required level, even if just fractionally, so the impact in attack was minimal.
Oxlade-Chamberlain: Discussed above in detail.
Giroud: I thought he really tried hard in this game to get more involved in the deeper areas. Villa didn’t mark him as tightly as Montpellier did and that allowed him the time and space to play a few wall passes in the centre of the pitch. He also moved into the wider areas in order to link with teammates and create space for the others. That chance for Koscielny, for instance, was created by Giroud moving to the left. The move where AOC was put in-behind resulted from Giroud’s clever first time pass to Ramsey in the centre. The move in the 56th minute resulted from a one-two with AOC on the right flank. All-in-all it was a very hard working effort from the Frenchman. I have been critical of his work outside the final third so credit where it’s due. Shame his teammates didn’t create much for him.
Podolski: Was pulled into deeper areas more often than he’d want to go. That meant he saw a lot of the ball in the central third rather than the final third. Still had a couple of half-chances in the box but nothing earth shattering. Another one who looked a bit jaded and off the boil.
Arsenal’s attackers weren’t able to use the space behind Villa’s relatively high line. The play in the wider areas on both sides was disappointing. Their inability to interchange positions – possibly related to specific skills and tendencies – was also an inhibiting factor.
Subs: Gervinho looks like a man short on confidence to go with his technical limitations. Arshavin played a couple of delightful balls into the box. It was surprising that he didn’t immediately play on the left after coming on as he is much more influential on that side. Coquelin didn’t have much time to impress.
Wenger: It’s his squad and it’s his job to get the best out of the players he has. Can’t really cite exhaustion as an excuse if he’s unwilling to rest players on a regular basis. Can’t really blame the younger players/inexperience if he’s relying on many of them for squad depth. This season is going to give him further headaches, I’m convinced of that. Hopefully, he’ll find the way to keep the team in the Champions League spots.Follow @goonerdesi