By Nick Ames

Arsenal’s passing game has long been feted for its creative possibilities but could it prove their best form of defence too?

The notion that a team is less likely to concede when it has the ball is hardly radical, but it only becomes watertight when the side’s positioning is correct when possession is lost. Much of that depends on the more defensive-minded of the central midfielders on show, and on his relationship with his centre backs.

For example, key to Arsenal’s fine win at Liverpool were the sensible passing choices of Mikel Arteta and, equally importantly, Per Mertesacker.

The German’s 10 passes to Arteta at Anfield last week - all safe, short and forward - proved by some distance to be the highest combination involving an Arsenal defender.

Nearly a third of Mertesacker's 34 attempted passes during the game were fed to the Spaniard, who in turn completed the highest pass completion ratio in the Arsenal side - succeeding with 94.6 per cent of his 92 passes.


Key: Yellow = completed passes

Mertesacker to Arteta

Mertesacker himself completed 88.2 per cent of his passes - the best figure among the Arsenal back four. He did nothing spectacular, staying within a small area of the pitch and feeding others better placed to recycle the ball, but this is exactly where his relationship with the deep-dropping Arteta becomes important.

Arteta himself keeps things, on the whole, very simple - generally feeding his wide players or the more advanced midfielders, Abou Diaby and Santi Cazorla. Few long passes are attempted, and there is no involvement around the penalty area.

Dropping deep to receive simple balls from his back four, principally Mertesacker, Arteta lays them on once more for others to use in more advanced areas.

Arsène Wenger recently told the Official Arsenal Magazine that, at the top level, deep-lying midfielders need to be technicians nowadays. The destructive element is being phased out in favour of accurate passing and technical quality.

Arteta himself has said that his new responsibilities hinge upon “the first pass” - that ball to Cazorla, Diaby, Lukas Podolski or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for example. It seems simple enough but it appears to mark a change from the style Arsenal employed last term.


Key: Yellow = key passes, Green = completed passes, Red = incomplete passes

Analysis Song Liverpool 2011


Key: Green = completed passes, Red = incomplete passes

Analysis Arteta Liverpool 2012/13

Compare this season’s win at Anfield with the 2-1 win there in March.

On that occasion, Laurent Koscielny played at right centre back and Alex Song started as the deepest-lying midfielder. During the game Koscielny passed directly to Song just once – that’s out of 412 made in total by the Gunners.

Song himself tended to look further up the pitch, often seeking longer, diagonal balls – one of which results in a goal for Robin van Persie – and aimed to make the incisive pass himself.

As a result, a comparison between Koscielny’s and Mertesacker’s overall passing patterns in these games is quite interesting. We see the German restricting himself to that smaller area, playing more of those shorter passes to Arteta and his team-mates as they come deep for the ball.


Key: Green = completed passes, Red = incomplete passes

Analysis Koscielny Liverpool 2011

Key: Green = completed passes, Red = incomplete passes


Key: Green = completed passes, Red = incomplete passes

Analysis Mertesacker Liverpool 2012

Circumstances ensure that direct comparisons can’t always be exact. Arsenal took a relatively early lead at Anfield last week, curbing their need to attack and ensuring that, when gained, possession didn’t need to be used extravagantly.

But it’s precisely this kind of methodical, straightforward use of the ball – aided by deploying a midfielder happy to sit and recycle – that helps deny opposition teams momentum. Spain and Barcelona, of course, have set an example in this regard.

Arsenal did not actually dominate possession at Anfield, especially during the middle period of the game - but they made 79 passes more than in March’s encounter en route to a clean sheet.

And those simple lines of possession between defence and midfield played an integral role.

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10 Sep 2012