For the first time in years Arsenal’s squad had a major shake up last summer. With nine players signed and eight players leaving the club, including some that personified the Arsenal style of recent years, it is understandable that a change in the way they play would be forthcoming; but just how much have the north London club been transformed?
A criticism often levelled at Arsene Wenger since 2005 is that he fails to adapt to the problems of his team and that his stubbornness is depicted in flaws that have become characteristic of his team such as the inability to defend properly from set pieces. However there is evidence to suggest these slurs are unfair. Whilst a refusal to deviate from his desire for an aesthetically pleasing style of play is clear, he is not averse to correcting the problems that have run through his team over the last few years and there are various factors this season that demonstrate this. Some show a change that has benefited Arsenal and others show a change that hasn’t, but all show a change in the way Arsenal are playing.
Last season Arsenal drove up the wings with their full backs and had, for much of the season, a notoriously shaky centre back pairing. This year things a different. Obviously partly their defence has been altered by the sale of Clichy, the return of Vermaelen and the injuries to all of Arsenal’s full backs. This has left them with a narrow back four; more solid but with less attacking potency. However there are clear tactical changes to the Arsenal defence too. Wenger has swapped and changed between zonal and man marking and the addition of the giant German Per Mertesacker is a rather obvious attempt to address the lack of height at the heart of Arsenal’s defence. The result? Arsenal have only conceded eight per cent of their goals from headers this season. That is the lowest percentage of any team in the league.
You could argue that this is because they have been playing with four centre backs recently; however, whilst this will definitely help the cause, you have to remember that Santos only got injured relatively recently and Sagna has played half of the season so far. Therefore to wholly attribute the better defence of crosses and set pieces to the injuries suffered by the full backs would be to ignore the huge defensive changes that have taken place at Arsenal. The rise of Szczesny too has helped but it is key to remember that last season Arsenal had conceded over half of their goals from set pieces, more than any other team in the league. In the space of six months they have totally reversed their fortunes in that department.
Arsenal’s attack is perhaps the mutated brother of what it was before – similar, but not the same. Over the past ten years Arsenal have become known for their short and intricate passing style, they have become known for dominating possession, and, all too often, not doing enough with that possession. However that too seems to have changed. Perhaps having lost Nasri and Fabregas Wenger realised that the same level of possession football would not achieve the same results. Consequently there seems to be less of an emphasis on permanent possession and more of a value placed on counter attacking football. Something that has been lacking from Arsenal’s game in any abundance since their last title winning side. This year Arsenal have scored more goals from counter attacks than any other side in the league. This not only shows that Arsenal are doing more with the possession that they have but also suggests that they are having less possession if they are getting more counter attacking opportunities.
Indeed, Arsenal’s style of play is perhaps not as easy on the eye as it has been in recent seasons, partly due to the loss of Fabregas, however they have addressed many of the problems last year – defensive solidity, a lack of height, inefficiency with the ball. The question remains however: has their change in style merely opened up new problems such as a decrease in attacking threat? For Arsenal fans it is pleasing to see problems solved that they thought might somehow be going unnoticed by the Arsenal backroom staff however they will greet the slightly more rugged style of play with less enthusiasm. One thing however is for certain: if it brings results there won’t be any complaints.
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