Writing in the September edition of the Official Arsenal Magazine, Michael Cox looks at how Arsenal will need to approach encounters with their closest rivals for top honours this season.
After 2012/13 was spent adjusting to Andre Villas-Boas’ methods, Tottenham may prove even more dangerous this season. The signing of Brazilian midfielder Paulinho enables Villas-Boas to play his preferred 4-3-3 system, and the arrival of Valencia’s Roberto Soldado giving Spurs a technical, prolific lone forward.
The north London derby was the Gunners’ first major fixture of the season, with Olivier Giroud scoring the only goal of the game. In the next game between the clubs, on March 15, Arsenal must also remember the manner they were defeated at White Hart Lane last season. Spurs repeatedly exposed a high defensive line through pace and clever through-balls. With Soldado’s impressive acceleration and ability to receive direct passes and shoot immediately, Arsenal mustn’t make the same mistake.
Arsenal’s first victory of 2012/13 was at Anfield, and that performance remained one of their most disciplined, controlled displays of the season. With Brendan Rodgers emphasising the importance of possession football but Liverpool lacking penetration, the Gunners sat deep in two banks of four before breaking swiftly and Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski netted their first goals for the Club.
Liverpool have improved since then, with the January signings of Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge a promising combination - the former plays excellent through-balls, the latter has great pace in behind opposition defences - so allowing Liverpool to dominate possession will be much more dangerous this season.
Rodgers’ side visit the Emirates on November 2, and in last season’s 2-2 draw they started excellently by pressing extremely high up the pitch, with Jordan Henderson playing an energetic, destructive advanced midfield role. Arsenal must ensure their passing is crisp and accurate from the start.
New Manchester United manager David Moyes became increasingly defensive against Arsenal in his Everton days, with the last four meetings between the Scot and Arsène Wenger producing just four goals.
He’ll have to embrace a more positive approach in his new job. But it’s worth remembering that Manchester United were also very defensive in big games last season - favouring a deep defensive line before counter-attacking swiftly, especially down the right flank, which was Arsenal’s major problem in the 2-1 defeat Old Trafford. Arsenal also held the ball for too long in midfield without creating chances, and must ensure they play with more penetration when travelling to Manchester in November.
In last season’s home draw with United, however, Arsenal’s physicality meant they dominated the opening stages - and judging from the tough midfield tackling evident in Moyes’ final trip to the Emirates with Everton, they will need to be combative and resilient once again.
Arsenal struggled against Chelsea during Jose Mourinho’s first spell at Stamford Bridge, failing to win any of those eight contests - although the main problem was Didier Drogba, who has already punished them this season at the Emirates Cup.
Under Mourinho, Chelsea were always a powerful, dynamic side that dominated the centre of midfield physically, and depended upon quick counter-attacking down the flanks. Mourinho might become more adventurous in his second spell because of the number of talented playmakers at his disposal, although the purchase of direct, goalscoring wide forward Andre Schurrle from Leverkusen suggests he’ll still want his side to break quickly.
Theo Walcott has performed particularly well against Chelsea in recent years, scoring three times. Getting him running in behind Ashley Cole might be the best attacking strategy, but Arsenal must also concentrate on defending set-pieces properly, having been repeatedly overpowered in these situations previously.
New City coach Manuel Pellegrini has faced Arsenal before, losing both two-legged ties in his Champions League days with Villarreal, but at Manchester City he’s working with a more talented group of players and the Gunners will be in for a real test.
City have boosted their squad with the arrivals of winger Jesus Navas, target man Alvaro Negredo and intelligent forward Stevan Jovetic, meaning they’ll have a plethora of attacking options when Arsenal travel to the Etihad in mid-December. Midfielder Fernandinho has arrived from Shakhtar, and should form a fearsome midfield duo with Yaya Toure.
Pellegrini’s sides usually hold on to the ball for long periods, and excel in terms of structured, integrated movement between intelligent attackers. The Chilean loves selfless, versatile playmakers - this is a man who embraced Santi Cazorla’s creative intelligence at both Villarreal and Malaga - and City versus Arsenal should be one of the most attractive fixtures of the season.
Roberto Martinez’s attack-minded approach had mixed results against Arsenal during his Wigan tenure - he lost 4-0, 3-0, 4-0 and 4-1 in the previous four campaigns, with the latter result confirming the Latics’ relegation last season.
But there was also an impressive counter-attacking 2-1 victory at Emirates in 2011/12, a 2-2 draw at the DW Stadium a year before (which denied Arsenal the chance to go joint-top) and an amazing turnaround in 2010/11, when Wigan trailed 2-0 with 10 minutes remaining, yet won 3-2.
In his final two seasons at Wigan, Martinez used an unusual 3-4-3 system that often caused Arsenal problems down the flanks, and he’s set to play in a similar fashion this season - perhaps with Johnny Heitinga shifting between midfield and defence, allowing full-backs Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman to charge forward.
Unfortunately, Arsenal don’t face Martinez’s Everton until December; both manager and club are renowned for starting slowly, then pushing on.
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