That's me, right behind Walcott, reaching to touch the feet of the gods.

Arsènal 5-2 Tottenham: revisited

I don’t know how you spent your Christmas but mine was full of the three F’s: family, food, and football.

On Christmas Eve I wrapped my daughter’s presents, had a few bottles of Snow Cap and gave myself the gift of re-watching Arsenal’s 5-2 win over Tottenham, from February. I have to say February because, as you know, Arsenal have beaten Tottenham 5-2 twice this year.

The next day, after my daughter had played with her Legos and eaten her gingerbread pancakes and bacon, her mom whisked her off to a second Christmas and I settled in for a long day of snoozing, eating, and reading. Mostly, reading about Arsenal.

The book I read is Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub and it is probably the most important book about Arsenal that any fan of football, but especially a Gooner, can read. This isn’t a book review, that may come later, but I do want to impress on you that it’s an important book; not because you should believe every word but because almost every word in it dominates the narrative about Arsenal and Arsene Wenger.

I was given this book two years ago but, oddly, only started reading it last weekend. Had I read this book two years ago, my blog might be very different today.  It might be more “Angry” or “Grove-y” because every criticism you have read about Arsenal and Arsene Wenger is in Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub. The weird thing is that these facts that we all know are presented not as a criticism, but rather as an example of why Arsene and Arsenal are so great.

For example, Arsene Wenger’s training methods are deeply criticized by many folks. The critique being that Arsene doesn’t prepare players for the opposition, rather that he has a set training routine he goes through. That fact is in Arsènal but the conclusion is not that Wenger doesn’t prepare his team but rather that Arsene’s approach to preparation is simply different. Moreover, Wenger’s approach is a well respected training regiment and coaches from all over the world want to emulate Wenger’s approach.

What we learn from Alex Fynn and Kevin Whitcher’s excellent book is that Wenger’s training method prepares his team to play together as a team, so that they can instinctively know where their teammate will be at any given moment. He also focuses on fitness so that his team can take advantage of the opposition who will invariably have to work harder to stay in the game. Once he’s prepared his team physically and mentally, he then kind of turns them loose on the opposition.

Rewatching Arsenal’s 5-2 win over Tottenham, with the advantage of this newfound perspective on my side, I saw things differently than when I first watched the match. And even differently from when I watched the match this summer.

The first thing I saw differently is this notion that Wenger doesn’t change his system and that he rarely responds to changes by opposition managers. It’s somewhat true, because we do know that Arsene sends his men out to play like a jazz band might; rather than having a set of sheet music from which they play every note perfectly, they are free to improvise within the confines of the piece they are playing. And like a good jazz band, sometimes that’s fantastic and sometimes it’s as tedious as a Phish concert sober. But no matter what happens, when that doesn’t work, he is very reluctant to change.

However, you can see two things from the Tottenham match in February that are either the exception which proves the rule or the reality which disproves the rule, depending upon your inclination.

Louis Saha’s goal in the 4th minute was pure luck but it was born out of Arsenal playing such a fantastically high line and affording a player like Saha the room to run and get between the defenders and to even get the shot off. Whether that was Arsene Wenger’s call or whether that was the players deciding to play that high up the pitch is unknown. But what is known is that, factually, Arsenal stopped playing a high defensive line and stopped pressing so high up the pitch. Here’s the tackles map of the first half versus the second:



As you can see, Arsenal played deeper in defense for the second half.

Another change Wenger made was actually a reaction to something that Redknapp did at half-time. 2-2 at half time and it was basically a new game so Redknapp did what many Arsenal supporters call for Arsene Wenger to do: make substitutions at half-time to “win the game.” Redknapp brought on Sandro and van der Faart because Spurs had been overrun in midfield. It was Redknapp’s plan to change his system to a 5-man midfield, the kind of change which would have made ole George Graham proud.

And just like against Wigan last weekend, Arsenal saw the five-man midfield and knew how to beat it, by attacking wide. Here are the passing maps which show first half passing versus second:



Again, is that the players just changing the game on their own or was that Arsene Wenger telling them to get wide? Your answer might depend on your inclination but I’d like to offer a third path: if the players changed the game on their own or if Wenger did it from the sidelines is irrelevant because both are part of Wenger’s tactics.

As we learn in Arsènal, and I mentioned above, Wenger expects his team to play fluid football, like a great jazz band. If he never utters a single word on the sidelines or changes his formation at half-time, he’s deploying a tactic. You might not like it, but it is a tactic.

One of the other revelations in the book that struck me is how Arsene puts such a heavy emphasis on interplay between players. We actually already know that, if we’ve paid any attention to how Arsenal play, but seeing it written and confirmed actually turned a light on for me.

This idea of Arsene focusing his team on interplay between players means that the longer he keeps players together the more automatic their play should become. Again, using the match against Tottenham from February, there’s some great exchanges between Theo and Robin which only happen because they had a “telepathic” link.  Same between Song and Arteta, Song and Robin, and Song and Vermaelen. In fact, of the two players who Wenger sold this summer, it was Song’s connection to his teammates, workrate, and controlled aggression in that Spurs win which was most impressive to me.

I got a lot of stick for my post a few days ago that Arsenal, and specifically Wilshere, needs to be more in your face with the opposition, more aggressive getting stuck in and less passive moaning or retributive about the opposition tackling them. That Tottenham match was the perfect example of what I want to see from Wilshere and Arsenal, and it was driven mostly by Alex Song from midfield. The whole Arsenal team responded to Song’s very aggressive approach to that game. Arteta and he combined to basically take the opposition midfield out of the game. His constant nibbling at the opposition earned Scott Parker two yellows for retribution and he put Sandro in his pocket after the Spurs man picked up a yellow card just 16 minutes after being introduced. Then they neutered van der Vaart with close tackling and a little bit of rough treatment.

Nothing over the top, no Stoke on Trent tactics, just plain physical play.

That’s what I want to see from Arsenal. That’s what I want to see from Jack Wilshere. That’s what Wilshere can do to lift this team. He’s already trying to do it, but he’s trying in the wrong way. You have to be hard but controlled and right now he’s too wild and acting out with retribution instead of simply getting stuck in early and often as Song did against Tottenham. You do that and it lifts the entire team, gives them an edge. It’s what Arsenal did with Vieira and Petit and it’s what Arsenal should be looking to do again. English refs are the most permissive in the world, might as well use that to our advantage.

I will plainly say that I think Arsenal are missing Song as much if not more than Robin. Go back and watch the Spurs game again. He was a beast. Arsene gambled that Diaby would come good and that gamble failed. Since that roll came up craps, Arsenal need to replace Song. The midfield is starting to look run down and lethargic, like a zombie if you will. They need an injection of energy and some rotation to get that fire back. Maybe Coquelin can do it? I’m not sure and if not then I would like to see someone brought in now, especially given the importance of interplay and building those telepathic links.

This season had been depressing me quite a bit but watching that Spurs game again and reading Arsènal actually gave me hope that Arsene can pull this off and build what would be his fourth side. The components are all there for this to be a great Arsenal team; Podolski is a clinical finisher, Giroud is the perfect target man, Wilshere can be our pit bull, Cazorla is the band leader, and Mertesacker is a calming presence organizing the back. The pieces are all there, just how Wenger rolls the right numbers to get it to work is the interesting part.

Oh and this idea that Arsene is a gambler? It’s in the book.


31 thoughts on “Arsènal 5-2 Tottenham: revisited

  1. -15 Vote -1 Vote +1reason

    Podolski is a clinical finisher, Giroud is the perfect target man!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Coffee and wake up spring to mind

    1. +13 Vote -1 Vote +1Tim Post author

      Ah the old “change my name and pretend I’m someone else” comment gag. Welcome to the ban-bin, fucktard.

  2. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1olujedai

    Great post… I always argued with my friends that it is best to let the opponent worry about you and not the other way because they tend to make mistakes…
    I’ll try and get the book. It seems like a great one. And lest I forget, I like the way you ended the post.

  3. +4 Vote -1 Vote +1Uselessrightfoot

    Ignore the comments above. Good piece.
    Think Wilshere can bring what Song did, but needs to grow up a bit. The telepathy in the side isn’t there yet, but it’ll come.
    The ingredients are there to build another great side. We just need to keep this group together.

  4. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Arsenal Letters

    For the love of God, would it be too much if I asked you not to refer to that Dutch Skunk with his first name. It sounds and reads too endearing, too damn loving….

      1. Vote -1 Vote +1Arsenal Letters

        I watched that game almost 10 times, the most enjoyable thing that happened in 2012 for an Arsenal fan.

        Hopefully, this will go through as a civilized critique, not an attempt to start a fruitless exchange.
        What was impressive about Song’s performance in that game was that he did not commit any fouls until the score became 5-2. He finished the game with only one foul committed (which was after the 65th minute) and himself suffered 2 fouls.
        Now given that your argument for Wilshere was that he should learn to foul early, how does this Song performance provide any support for that?

      2. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Tim Post author

        He fouled far more than the one he was called for, you know that. Mike Dean allowed several of them to go via an advantage and turned a blind eye to many more.

      3. Vote -1 Vote +1Tim Post author

        I’m starting to figure out what the disagreement is about: defining what I mean by “foul”. I clearly didn’t do a good job describing what I meant.

        Would you agree that in any Premier League game, the number of fouls called is a fraction of the fouls committed?

      4. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Arsenal Letters

        Yes, I would definitely agree with that. Being physical (on your face) is a dominant strategy (in a game-theoretic sense) in the Premiership. It is a league where you first shove the opposition, give a little nudge and see if you are called foul. They even praise you for playing like this as they say “you are keeping the opposition honest” whatever that means. For example, Shawcross would get a yellow card in the first 10 minutes of every game if he played, say in the Turkish League.

        It is like when you face a linesman (assistant referee) who is reluctant to raise the offside flag unless absolutely sure, you would benefit to gamble to stay a bit offside more than often as a forward as all you need is that he misses only one offside decision.

        But, isn’t all this very well known? What is new in this observation? Premiership is very very physical as referees allow it. That’s why they quip whether Messi can do it on a cold and wet Wednesday night in Britannia.

        Clearly, at least for me, the way you built your argument the other day about Wilshere, when you suggested “he should FOUL more” was quite misleading.

        Anyway, I am sorry that I called your argument “dumbest in 2012″. Calling it such was not only very over the top, it was itself admittedly a very dumb way to start a good discussion.

      5. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Tim Post author

        Don’t worry about it. It was a poorly written article. You made me explain my thinking and I appreciate that.

  5. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1GunnerDoYou

    Enlightening post. I may have to sit down and watch that match again now.

    Despite all those Hollywood ball attempts, I also miss Song’s lofted through-balls, especially in games where we just can’t penetrate the opposition. Would’ve liked to have seen Giroud / Poldi / Theo on the end of a few of them.

    Coq may have the potential to fill the aggressive role but from what I’ve seen this season I don’t think he has either the physical presence or aggression. I’ve also found him a bit frustrating through sloppy passes or getting dispossessed. But maybe that’s because when he has played he hasn’t been the deepest lying midfielder.

    We do have Song’s understudy in Frimpong though, who is our most aggressive player and could come back in January. Whether he is disciplined enough or good enough though is another matter. Do we know how he’s gotten on at Charlton? What are your thoughts on giving him a chance in the 2nd half of the season?

    1. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Tim Post author

      Frimpong is a difficult guy to gauge. He has all of the qualities to make him a great player but I think he may not be the brightest bulb. On the pitch he loses his mind, a lot. Off the pitch, he seems more interested in celebrity than football.

      Shame, because he could have been a fantastic player.

      1. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1craig

        That’s it exactly! Who would have guessed that such a young man would sum himself up so perfectly. Maybe he isn’t such a low watt bulb.

  6. +5 Vote -1 Vote +11NilToTheArsenal

    Reading this, I think that the time Arsene Wenger spent in Japan must have had tremendous influence on his approach. Phillipe Auclair has hinted at this in interviews as well.

    I think Wenger sees himself as somewhat of the sensei at Emirates Stadium which is the dojo he has created. Or from my own Indian perspective I might say a guru in the classical sense (guru = teacher). His sense of purpose, his affinity to developing youth, his dedication to “the way” is remarkable in its uniqueness.

    As for Wilshere, it’s downright scary to watch him constantly launch himself willy nilly into the thick of things. But I am so grateful that his hear in the right place. It almost seems as if he read “Mecenary vs Moral” argument (for lack of a better description) of a few posts ago. Check out his recent comments in Arsenal Magazine:

    “He’s always been there for me,” he said in this month’s Arsenal Magazine. “He showed faith in me when I was 18, and he stuck with me throughout the whole time I was injured.

    “He knew the only thing that would get me better is games, and he stood by me. I need to thank him for that, and yes, he was a big part of why I signed.”

    And Wilshere is backing the British core – all of whom bar one high profile exception have signed new contracts with the club – to bring more successful times back.

    “I’m very happy here. I’ve signed a long-term deal, I’m not 21 yet and I see my future here. We have got a good crop of young players, and good young English players as well. We’ve got Coquelin, Ramsey too – we are all coming through together and we are all improving as we get more experience.

    “Chambo’s 19, I’m 20, Jenko is 20, Gibbs too. When you get to 25 or 26 that’s when you hit your peak and we all want to be here for that. We want to create something and we want to win things for Arsenal together.”

    Every sentiment that any real Gooner would want to hear right there, and there’s no reason to believe it is not 100% sincere. A nice little Christmas gift for all.

  7. Vote -1 Vote +1Lettraggad

    Interesting , I’ll add that book to my “to read list” because I sure as hell need to reinforce my “believes” again.
    As improved as Song was , ( I loved him by the way right up until he signed for cunts) One thing that constantly irritated me were his early almost unnecessary fouls that often saw him booked early in games. He managed to improve on so many other levels and was also rarely sent off after getting carded so it was obvious he had some ounce of selfcontrol and I never really figured out why he couldn’t cut that part out of his game. You pointing out that there was method in that apparent madness is interesting indeed.

  8. Vote -1 Vote +1Ser "Wegs" Wegwick

    There are two ways to learn. One is through repetition, the other is through example. It takes a lot longer to learn through repetition that example, and I don’t think we have that time anymore.

  9. +3 Vote -1 Vote +1Cdoyle

    Related but sort of unrelated: The thing that sticks with me when it comes to Song was his incredible ability to hold the ball off tacklers, particularly when he was receiving backward passes under pressure. Over the course of the last campaign he had become something of a rock in terms of keeping possession without needing an immediate pass outlet, which led me to believe that had he stayed with the club his future may have actually been further up the pitch, owing both to his ability to shield and his eye for the defense-splitting pass. Barca’s decision to actually move him farther back, either as a central defender or as a sub/replacement for Busquets, who plays something of an advanced sweeper role since the fullbacks play high and the center backs split wide, seemed to mute those qualities, which is why his inability to make much of an impression for Barca isn’t really a surprise. I think someone else was going to be drafted into the deepest midfield role at Arsenal regardless, allowing Song the freedom to impose himself higher. Shame he’s gone, because I think (as do you) that he was the player that most understood the versatility and free-form nature Arsene’s three-man midfield required.

  10. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Cliffy

    To think…a good Arteta penalty would have taken us to fourth spot with a spare game…He has redeemed himself since then and scored 3 penalties in a row…
    Whats missing in this team apart from all the ingredients is the confidence…The confidence that comes from repeatedly grinding out results…
    The consistency in the last 3 PL matches have come since the middle 3 and the back 4 has remained constant…and probably our best 7 in those position. (Bac, Per, Verm, Gibbs, Jack, Arteta and Santi) They have formed a good understanding of each other..that despite the lack of a target man..and carrying two “spurt” players in Walcott and Podolski..we have outdone the opposition.
    We need to have this consistency running to the end of the season…quite an impossibility considering our injury record. Wenger’s methods has their chinks in instances when he is forced to make tweaks to his preferred core.
    He somehow expects the same understanding and refuses to think on targeting the opposition’s weakness.. To that extent I think the complaint is valid that Arsene’s methods on the match day are sometimes not the best..and is inflexible…
    Classic case is Norwich match with the 83rd minute Gnabry introduction..or the Villa match with the Coq coming in for Giroud..Vermaelen was on bench that day..To be successful in gambling you need to follow instincts a bit..and not play on what works 80% of the time..May be he is also short of confidence…which is transferring back into the team….
    Hope the magic of christmas and the success of the latest PL results last long…

  11. Vote -1 Vote +1ST

    Top article.

    Wildhere is that man but it will take him time to show that much quality.

    Remember, Song ooh many years and had a period at Charlton where he was amazing.

  12. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1craig

    Jeorge Bird did a profile of Le Coq today. Interesting read. Jeorge watches a lot of youth players, and apparently he’s still pretty impressed with the kid. Assuming he’s right, can we wait another 2 seasons for him to become the new Song? I’ve always liked him because he tackled hard, worked hard, seemed a decent passer. This season he hasn’t blown me away, but I haven’t seen most of the games he played in in HD, which it makes it hard to follow who is who all the time.

    Thought it meshed well with your (absolutely spot on) analysis of Song’s importance.

  13. +3 Vote -1 Vote +1alabamagooner

    Articles like this are the reason I read your blog everyday. I learned more in the 10 minutes I spent reading it than I have since…well, since the last time you wrote an analysis like this one. Much more useful than all of us speculating about who will or won’t leave or be bought in January.

  14. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Zeddington

    I do wonder if all the new faces that have come in over the last 2 years, as well as injury problems and those that have left, have disrupted our fluency somewhat. Back when we had Hleb and Rosicky and the rest you could almost see that telepathic link between the players. It was ‘pretty’ football. This season, not so much – passes are slower, players are ponderous in possession. For the most part, our play has been anything but pretty. I wonder if its because the players are still learning how to play with each other – how long does that take? And if so, would adding new faces in Jan help or hinder the team?

  15. +3 Vote -1 Vote +1Greg

    Song took a couple of years at least to get comfortable with the Arsenal way in midfield, to find the right balance between aggressive defence and ambitious attack. Doesn’t it just make you wake up every morning cursing the name of Dan Smith? Diaby could have been running Arsenal’s midfield for four years now – imagine the player he would be today if he’d had the opportunities that Song had.

    And I’m not saying that to retreat into the comforting world of blaming injuries for our lack of success in recent years: I don’t actually find it very comforting at all.

  16. +6 Vote -1 Vote +1Shard

    It’s probably because I have read another book by Alex Fynn and Kevin Whitcher called ‘The Glorious Game’ that I feel like I already knew all of this. (Though your analysis is brilliant, and thanks for reminding me about the Spurs game. I was there. I’ll never tire of saying that) It was written around 2002-03, and the edition I have was updated after the invincible season. Much of Arsene’s character(him being a gambler is mentioned), training, and Arsenal’s way of operation, is included in there as well.

    Arsene’s apparent lack of tactics (I say apparent, so you know which way I’m inclined) is as you say, also a tactic. I was trying to say something similar a few weeks ago, in defense of Arsene Wenger. The way he works, the team needs time to gel, and the players will come good. The pieces ARE (almost) all there. In the meantime, his record suggests he’ll get us to a minimum of a CL spot. To do so, while losing so many ‘artistes’ to rival clubs, facing so many injuries, and more than a few injustices referee-wise, is nothing short of remarkable. I don’t think it’s enough, and I think neither will Wenger. We’ll be back at the top if we can keep this team together, which should be easier considering the age at which most of them signed, and the long term deals that many of the younger ones have committed to (I know contracts mean nothing in football), and of course the money coming in hopefully meaning we won’t have to rely on selling players.

    Thank you for the article Tim.

  17. Vote -1 Vote +1The Clock End

    Great article, cheers.

    The book you mentioned, “Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub” is certainly one fo the best Arsenal-related books ever written. Great read for any Gooner.

  18. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Finsbury

    Another great post with many great comments.

    Walking to the ground for the Sunderland Home game with friends we found ourselves talking to two cockney Arsenal exiles from southern Spain. They had some promising tales of Carzola to help ease the pain of players lost, but we also discussed which of the two Summer departures would be more keenly felt. For me Song had always represented Arsenal’s Doom, as well as their DM. (Heh, a hilarious joke, i know!) The future of that team encapsulated in one player: The performance against Dortmund, Home, was outstanding, not forgetting the nibble that nobbled Gotze (his leg was still attached to his thigh, which is nice and considerate). He teamed up brilliantly with Arteta, bouncing opponents out of his way like, well, a bouncer! So I felt against my better instincts that he would be the bigger loss. Even though some consider he went a little backwards last season he was an improving player who had shown the aptitude to learn off his teammates.
    A player with the understanding and familiarity of his teammates who could tackle dribble and then pass as he did for the first or second Walcott goal in that demolition of Tottenham and Redknapp. It’ll take a little time to fill that void, and the other one too.

    Frimpong has lost two seasons, it’s a lot to catch up and possibly harder at his age in some ways then it might have been for Rosicky, though each case is unique. It’ll also take him some time, perhaps seasons, to get to where he might feel he should already be? I don’t know but I think he’ll be ok, if he can be patient. I also don’t know much about Bould’s youth team but I read that Frimpers played like Jack’s enforcer, not a bazillion miles away from what we saw last season with Song and Arteta.

    I believe that in spite of those who like to shout loud, who will morph their critiques from one season to the next as they seek after ‘change’ that many many Arsenal fans understand that Football teams have to be built. Even at City and Chelsea. We’ve been fortunate in a way. The others have had their own troubles, funny as it may seem (Of course their managers have a little more room for manoeuvring, like for say a £30m expirement in Veron). Maureen’s renowned man management ‘skills’ meant that his first title winning squad was broken apart too early. Mancini might be following a similar path. Slur Alex’s declining credibility requires no comment from me here!

    Not all Arsenal fans are drowning in despair.

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