The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.
– Salvador Dali
That’s the thing about cliches isn’t it? They are simultaneously pointed and idiotic. For example, to say that Arsenal “needed three points” yesterday was true, when do they not need three points? When they are 4 points in front of the second place team going into the last game of the season? Oh you mean, “when they have won the League”? It’s true, when Arsenal have won the League, then they no longer need three points.
The problem as I see it is that many of the cliches associated with Arsenal are subtler than “they need three points today” which is what makes them pernicious. Take the old chestnut that “Arsenal can’t defend a lead.” While it’s true that Arsenal have been turned over quite spectacularly in recent memory (the 4-4 draw against Newcastle will forever mar Arsene’s record) I have also seen Arsenal perform admirably in the defensive department such as the 2-1 win over Barcelona and in yesterday’s 1-0 win over Everton.
The entire Arsenal back five (plus Song) had a great game against Everton. In fact, the last time I remember Arsenal playing that well as a defensive unit was against Barcelona, as I have already pointed out and will continue to point out until it becomes its own cliche. Obviously, Everton aren’t Barcelona¹, but Everton are a spirited team¹ who came out to play in the second half¹ and really put Arsenal to the sword.¹
No, really, I mean all of those cliches! Damnit!
As I pointed out in my By the Numbers column on Arseblog News Arsenal basically spent 70 minutes of yesterday’s match defending. After about the 19th minute, Arsenal had already accumulated 8 of the 14 shots they would take in the entire game. Since they had the goal that gave them the lead in the 8th minute they played cautiously which, honestly, was refreshing. Part of the reason why Arsenal are known as a team who can’t defend leads is because they tend to continue playing with an attacking style of football no matter what the scoreline is. You don’t get an 8-2 scoreline by packing in the defense, usually.
Yesterday they didn’t do that. Well, mostly. Koscielny had three runs forward which I found to be a bit odd but when he went forward, Song dropped back. Similarly when Vermaelen played as center forward for a few minutes in the second half (which nearly resulted in a second goal I might add) Song covered.
The point here is that there was a balance and a defensive awareness¹ that the Arsenal team played with which we haven’t seen as often as some would like. That defensive awareness comes from the defensive unit playing together consistently¹ and as such it should be no surprise to learn that Szczesny, Sagna, Koz, Vermaelen, Gibbs, and Song have been Arsenal’s first choice defensive six during this five game win streak.
Sagna, in particular, had an immense game against Everton. That right side of the pitch is where Arsene concentrated much of the passing, possibly in an attempt to keep Leighton Baines in check. Baines rose to the challenge, however and the battle between Baines and Sagna was interesting. Both players ended up leading their respective teams in tackles.
But it was clear that Moyes targeted Sagna for a perceived aerial weakness possibly because one of the old Arsenal cliches is that the team is poor in the air and given that Sagna is smaller than most other defenders, and he was playing on the side that Baines was attacking targeting him sort of made sense. I made mention of this tactic last season; teams would target Clichy with long diagonals and contrary to popular opinion, Clichy actually defended aerials quite well.
The same thing happened yesterday. Everton targeted Sagna 17 times for aerial duels and Sagna won 14. I honestly cannot remember the last time I saw any player on any team win 14 aerial duels. To put that number in context, the entire Everton team only won 10 aerial duels. The cliche is that Arsenal are poor in the air and naturally you would want to pick on the smallest guy on the pitch, but Sagna proved that cliche wrong as he is one of Arsenal’s best defenders in terms of aerial duels.
I don’t think that Alex McLeish reads this blog so I will say that if you are going to pick on any of Arsenal’s defenders to target for heading practice, I would choose Gibbs or Vermaelen. They win their share of aerial duels (around 2 per game each) but their percentages are the lowest among the Arsenal defenders. But that’s the thing, people think Vermaelen is some monster in the air (it’s actually Koscienly) and who knows why they don’t target Gibbs — maybe because he’s English? Again, cliches.
Another weird thing that happened yesterday was Arsene starting both Ramsey and Rosicky at the same time. Most folks saw this lineup before the game and assumed that Rosicky would play wide and Ramsey more centrally. Instead, what happened was Arteta played nominally as the widest player (on the right) and the other three center mids all played, well, centrally with Ramsey acting as the furthest forward of the four — as evidenced by the fact that he had the most shots of anyone on Arsenal.
The whole team’s passing patterns are very odd. Look at how much they all either played forward or back and how few times anyone passed from the center circle. Ramsey only made two passes out of the center circle in his entire time on the pitch.
And finally, there’s my least favorite phrase in the English language, Arsenal played with the handbrake on¹. This is the one that most perplexed me because after about the 19th minute I tweeted that Arsenal were playing with “it” on. Not only that, but looking at the second half stats you can see that Arsenal weren’t passing the ball with the same frequency that we are all used to. So, for example, Arsenal completed 140 passes in the first 19 minutes and 132 passes in the entire second half (at a 68% rate to boot).
But the question is, what constitutes the handbrake being on? Is the handbrake playing defensive football the way that they did yesterday (and against Barcelona) or is the handbrake when Arsenal lull themselves to sleep¹ with metronomic passing?
Personally, I think it’s the latter. When Arsenal get a lead and try to pass the opposition to sleep. That, for me, is Arsenal playing with the handbrake on. Lots of sideways passing, looking more to retain possession for possession’s sake then to win the game.
Yesterday, Arsenal came to win the game.¹
And finally, I want to give credit to Everton. They could fee a bit hard done by with the offside decision that went against them — though to be fair, Lee Mason and his crew were shit on both sides, how does he miss this foul? But having been on the wrong end of these results many time myself, I can say that the thing that hurts the most is not that they got a poor decision but that they gave 110%¹ and still couldn’t get a point from the game. A bit unfortunate, and I really hope that they go on to win the FA Cup. It’s the least they deserve.
Also, can we have Leighton Baines?
In the end it’s a great win for Arsenal¹ and keeps our momentum going¹ with a tough schedule ahead¹. With Chelsea losing to Man City, and that Nasri trade finally paying off, and with Stoke eeking out a draw against Tottenham, Arsenal move clear into third place on the League table: 1 point and 1 goal ahead of 4th place Spurs and 6 points clear of Chelsea.
It’s not over until the fat lady sings¹ but for the moment there’s only one team in London!
1. Just pointing out whenever I use a cliche