Arsenal: Wenger's Return To Invincibles Counter-Attacking Is A Masterstroke

Arsenal played beautifully on the counter against Fulham, with Giroud holding it up and players feeding off him. Here's hoping it's not just a stop gap and that any news signings enhance the system...
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One of the biggest gripes Arsenal fans had of the 'Cesc Fabregas' team was the tippy-tappy football it had associated with it. Every game, there was numerous cries from the crowd for the players to just “shoot”, usually preceded by some form of profanity. Then again what isn’t in a football stadium…

The 2-1 defeat to the Sp*rs last season marked a turning point in our season as well as, in my opinion at least, causing a greater shift in our style of play. Gary Neville’s excellent analysis of our defending (which you can see here, 4:30 onwards) shows an entire team, not just a defence that was neglectful of the defensive side of the game. While many, pundits included, have stated that Arsenal need a yellow-card-collecting defensive mid as a cure to all our problems, I struggle to see the logic in this. There aren’t many top teams in the world who employ such a player as a shield, with many opting for a deep lying playmaker who wins through the ball through their positioning. Arteta is certainly in this mould, although I must admit, a player who I did not think would be capable of fulfilling this role (how wrong I was). The fact that players like this are suitable as the “shield” shows the importance of positioning. Our failings in the first half of last season and for numerous seasons prior to this have hinged on the lack of positioning from the entire team, but especially the midfield trio. The team have been too easy to break against as numbers have to be committed up the pitch to create openings when playing a possession game.


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Following this defeat however, Arsene seemed to have accepted that there would have to be a greater focus upon the defensive side of the game- this lead to a run of 11 games with 9 wins, 2 draws, 5 goals conceded, and notable 5 games in which Arsenal scored 1 goal or less. The football wasn’t the glorious, slick passing football that reached a peak in the 07-08 season when we came so close to winning the league. It was if anything, a throwback to the George Graham era of “1-0 to the Arsenal”. It was pragmatic and it did what it ultimately set out to do- Arsenal’s run saw them pip Tottenham to 4th place and condemn Spurs to another season of Europa League football. The team seemed for the first time in a very long while, capable of closing out games. I can’t remember too many times during the run in when we were hanging on for dear life. Sure, it didn’t make for comfortable viewing- when does it ever when it’s only 1-0 and you know what Arsenal are capable of? (We could bring out a DVD of all the balls up from the past 8 years). Our defence last year was the second best in the league, I refuse to believe that it is bad and we need wholesale changes despite what the media would have us believe. If the team shares the responsibility, we are more than capable of keeping clean sheets.

It was during the Fulham game that I felt I saw the next stage in this team’s development. Granted Fulham weren’t the best opposition. Granted they were far from solid. Granted they over committed going forward. However, the old adage, “you can only beat what’s in front of you” still rings true. It was how we went about the job more than anything that pleased me. Surprisingly, and for the only time that I can remember, MOTD actually did a half decent analysis of our style. We defended as a unit, there were times when all 11 of our players were in our own half, or even in our own box! It wasn’t a backs to the wall performance however, it was, it seemed to me, a concerted effort, a plan. I don’t remember Fulham creating too many chances, even when we went 1-0 up and the momentum started to swing towards them, much of their play was limited to outside our box, lacking any real incisiveness. Whatever you are playing against Adel Taraabt and Dimitar Bebatov, you know that they are capable to creating something from nothing. That we kept them quiet on Saturday was as much down to our compactness and positioning as a team as it was down to them “having an off day”. Going forward was what pleased me the most. We played fantastically on the counter, Giroud holding the ball up brilliantly, Walcott, Podolski and Cazorla running of him exploited the space beautifully. Podolski showed why he really is needed in our team, he shot at every opportunity and it seemed to force the others to play a much more direct style.

I hope that Wenger hasn’t implemented this system as a reaction to the 3-1 loss to Villa, with a view to changing it when signings come in. If the rumours of Angel Di Maria are true, he is another player who would really flourish in such a system and would bring our attack up a notch. People may wonder, “What about teams who park the bus?” Man United under SAF and our Invincibles both played on the counter a large amount of the time and won. Teams tend to park the bus a lot more if they know they won’t see the ball, sure there will be times when teams refuse to attack and opportunities to counter are non-existent but we can adapt for those games. Playing on the counter and cutting through teams at pace was a hallmark of Wenger teams pre-Fabregas. There is no doubt that the 4-2-3-1 with a playmaker on one wing was a system created to bring the best out of him. Cesc has moved on, it’s time we did as well and gave this squad an identity of its’ own.