In an end-of-year special, Michael Cox examines five Arsenal trends that emerged during 2013.
1. Koscielny-Mertesacker partnership
Arsenal’s year was kick-started by a heroic but ultimately futile victory. The 2-0 win at Bayern Munich in March wasn’t enough to seal Champions League progression, but it set the tone for the rest of 2013.
The crucial factor was the partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker, who performed excellently in Munich and have remained first-choice ever since. Arsenal are conceding just 0.63 goals per game since that combination was established, although the whole side have contributed without possession - Arsenal’s overall defensive shape has been excellent.
Nevertheless, the relationship between the centre backs is crucial. Koscielny is the more proactive defender, relentlessly tracking opponents into deep positions and winning the ball quickly. Mertesacker is much calmer: reading the game, backing off to give himself time, and rarely diving into tackles. Together, they’ve been the Premier League’s best centre-back partnership (see Fig 4).
2. The impact of Mesut Ozil
Only a very special player could convince Arsene Wenger to break Arsenal’s record transfer fee three times over, but the arrival of Mesut Ozil immediately lifted the mood around the Club.
More importantly, his impact on the pitch was instant. He registered an assist after barely 15 minutes of his debut against Sunderland (see Fig 1), and on his home debut against Stoke, the German had a hand in all three goals.
The selfless style of his play has brought the best out of others. Had Arsenal signed the striker they were linked with during the summer, the roles of the attacking midfielders could have become that of a mere supporting cast. Instead, Ozil’s intelligent runs and clever passing maximise the abilities of his team-mates. It’s rare to find a footballer so individually talented, yet such a team player too. He’s a perfect Arsenal footballer.
3. Sharing the goals around
During the 2011/12 campaign, Arsenal became extraordinarily reliant upon Robin van Persie’s goals. The Dutchman won the Golden Boot, but dependence upon one individual is rarely a healthy situation, and is the antithesis of the style Wenger has always encouraged.
In stark contrast, over the course of 2013 a key feature of Arsenal’s play has been the way players have shared the goalscoring burden (see Fig 2).
Four players - Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla - reached double figures in the league last season, and since then Arsenal have embraced Aaron Ramsey’s development into a true goalscoring midfielder, and signed Ozil, who has already contributed some crucial goals.
Creating a successful team is about more than goals, of course, but the identity of Arsenal’s scorers sums up the egalitarian nature of the current squad.
4. Tactical flexibility
It’s rare that Wenger has boasted so many different tactical options. The emphasis upon recruiting players who can play ‘the Arsenal way’ has often resulted in a squad full of similar options, but Wenger currently has one of his most flexible sides.
In recent weeks, for example, he’s switched between playing with two holding midfielders, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini, which gives a solid defensive structure to the side (see Fig 3), and using Ramsey alongside either of the duo, breaking forward powerfully. It’s a minor adjustment, but varies the balance of the side cleverly.
It’s the same on the flanks: Walcott and Podolski are very direct, whereas the likes of Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky drift inside and help to retain possession.
Wenger has combined an overall playing ethos with the ability to vary the shape of his side - the sign of a quality team.
5. Aaron Ramsey’s development
Wenger always had faith in Ramsey, but even he must be astonished at the Welshman’s development into such an all-rounder. He’s currently the Premier League’s most prolific tackler, and its highest-scoring midfielder (see Fig 5).
Has Wenger used a player like Ramsey before? Traditionally, he favoured two defensive midfielders - Patrick Vieira alongside Emmanuel Petit, and later Gilberto - which gave freedom to advanced midfielders to shine further forward.
Cesc Fabregas developed into a more attacking player having started deep, but that was a distinct change in role, rather than evidence he’d become an all-rounder.
Abou Diaby has the skillset but not the efficiency in the final third, while Ramsey’s eight goals is more than Ray Parlour, a fine underrated two-time Double winner, ever managed in a league campaign.
In a thoroughly modern football side, Ramsey is something of a throwback - an old-school box-to-box midfielder.
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