If, as the orange and black banner draped against the North Stand is correct, and Robin van Persie does score “when he wants”, it was evidently his day off as he left it to the others to get the goals. On the face of it, perhaps it was a good thing as it showed Arsenal are not so reliant on Robin van Persie and Arsène Wenger indicated as much, although he would have wanted van Persie to continue his goalscoring form and thus kept him on until the end. But when Kieran Gibbs opened the scoring, the most surprising thing wasn’t the fact that he had scored but that it was Arsenal 17th different goalscorer in the Premier League – more than any other team. What reliance on van Persie?
Of course, that would be missing the point as Arsenal have hugely been dependent on their captain and as Gibbs scored, it merely confirmed what Arsenal had been missing for much of the season – a coherent squad and chiefly the presence of full-backs. Because, not having recognised full-backs on the pitch has affected Arsenal tactically and therefore forced them to play in a different way. (In one sense, perhaps Wenger is culpable as he could have altered his team’s shape). At the beginning of the season, having lost both Samir Nasri and Cesc Fábregas and then Jack Wilshere through injury, Arsenal switched emphasis towards the flanks. When the full-backs quickly succumbed to injury, Arsenal were not able to produce the same combinations that we are regularly seeing now between Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott and Gibbs and Gervinho as they showed for the first goal, thus they tried to force they through the centre. It’s no coincidence, then, Arsenal’s fluency suffered in that period. Now, as Wenger says, there is “a more variation in our build-up play and therefore we are more dangerous as well.” And when Theo Walcott scored the second to essentially confirm the win when The Gunners completely dominated, each part of Arsenal’s game finally fell into place. Because, that type of goal is how Wenger has always wanted to score and quietly, he will be disappointed that it hasn’t more often. Not the pass from Alex Song, which he has been doing all season, but the penetrative ball behind the full-back, which Arsenal made a trademark of last season, and which seemed a perfect fir for the three-striker system.
Speaking of plans, Wenger also feels the team has come out of their shell in recent weeks and that’s because they are clearer of their game. Indeed, he indicates the early season form and tactics they used may have been dictated by the unfortunate circumstances they were in and thus had to play more cautiously (think about how their pressing had changed and the run of eight games unbeaten from October to mid-December where they almost exclusively dealt in low scores). “Since then [defeats to Fulham/Swansea],” said Wenger, “we have more options and a bit better plan. That has allowed the team to feel more confident.”
Their new-found exuberance can be typified by the way in which Kieran Gibbs was allowed to get forward against Aston Villa and previously against Everton although when he did, Arsenal also left themselves open. Luckily for Arsenal, Alex Song has been on standby as cover and in recent games, has had to drop back into his spaces more frequently. It’s an area Arsenal can still improve on as pushing two full-backs forward can cause undue strain on the back, not to mention when your centre-back also decides to join in the attack, and they looked slightly vulnerable on the break.
Nevertheless, defenders are crucial in developing a fluent attacking game and Arsenal often seek to take advantage, as they look to free them in the build up depending on who they are playing (against a 4-5-1, centre-backs become key while versus a two-man attack, the full-backs are usually the ones who receive it from the back first). “When we did not win games [earlier in the season], I did not feel we played as badly as people said. We have gained a lot of confidence in our play out from the back and that makes a massive difference,” said Wenger. “The defenders who play out from the back give us a security now and that allows the team to be much more confident.”
The fate of Arsenal’s season has usually suffered from the absence of quality defenders; this season, their presence has reignited them.