18 March 2014

A win to make George Graham proud...

Although it won't win us many points for style—Spuds dominated possession, we were sloppy with our passing, and we may indeed be lucky to have taken all three points—Sunday's 0-1 win over them hearkens back to the halcyon days under George Graham, a manager whose style might be as directly opposite to Arsène's as there could be. Whereas Arsène has been derided for not knowing how to set up a defense properly (and, in part, riding to glory on the stout defense he inherited when he took over), Graham presided over the "boring, boring Arsenal" squads that inspired the "one-nil to the Arsenal" chants, based on our confidence that we would defend a one-goal lead without trouble. To see us go in to White Hart Lane, score 70 seconds in, and then defend that lead for more than 95 minutes was a thing of beauty, albeit of a kind many of us may not have forgotten how to enjoy.

For more recent converts to the congregation, however, the idea of Arsenal as a stout, well-organized defensive side might be as foreign to them as, well, Arsenal embroiled in a title-tilt this late in the season. After all, under Arsène, Arsenal are known more for attractive, passing football, the marauding of Henry, Bergkamp, and Pirès, and the more-recent exploits of creators and attackers like Fabrègas, van Persie, Walcott, and Özil. It's arguably not been since the departures of such players as Adams, Dixon, and Keown that we've been able to point to defenders and see them among the pantheon of Arsenal greats (I disown Ashley Cole despite his years of service—I understand that players will come and go, the manner of his departure leaves a bitter taste in my mouth).

It's far too early to anoint Mertesacker or Koscielny,  just as it's too early to start measuring anyone for a statue, but their partnership, as we well-know, has been as responsible for our improved chances and results as any other single factor. The birth of the partnership coincides with the run that began back in March 2013, shortly after our last trip to White Hart Lane saw us lose 1-2 before going on to win at Bayern and finish that season on a ten-match unbeaten run, a run that only recently petered out in the last few months.

Sunday's win was our 23rd clean-sheet of the season, and our third positive result in a row (if we're willing to give ourselves credit for the draw with Bayern). Few will mistake Tottenham, with their -1 goal-differential for Chelsea, Liverpool, or Man City, but the manner with which we went into White Hart Lane and throttled them suggests—suggests, mind you, not proves—that we can win through grit as well as style. On a day when Spuds played with intensity if not intent, Rosický's early screamer meant that we could sit back and defend. Indeed, we had to, as their high line compressed the available space on the pitch, and our wasteful passing and finishing meant that we couldn't take advantage of the space behind that high line. By comparison, we sat extremely deep, pushed back by their pressing and possession, not to mention the chips and lobs they sent forward for Adebayor.

Player positions: Spuds (blue) vs. Arsenal (red)
The challenge, then, was for Per and Kos to sort out how best to deal with the threat that Adebayor posed. When he's on, as he frequently is when playing his former clubs, Adebayor can threaten with pace and with aerial ability. Of course, we offer one center-back with height and one with pace, and there were several times when one or the other was caught out by his lack of the other quality. Kos only managed to win three of six headers while Per claimed seven of eight; Kos made three tackles and two interceptions while Per had none of either. However, they combined for 35 clearances, almost three times the number that the entire Spuds squad made (13). Despite the Spuds' domination of possession and the number of shots they took (17), we blocked ten (which must be some kind of record or at least a first), and they could only put two others on target for Szczesny to save. Indeed, we were pressed back, as shown in the graphic above, but those Spuds have nothing to show for it.

In fact, sitting that deep almost became an actual strategy rather than a tactic. After all, Sunday was not the first time we've seen late-game substitutions of play-makers for defenders, such as Flamini for for Rosický or Monreal for Podolski, but it may be the first time that we've set up so defensively so early in the match and reinforced that approach through substitutions later. Instead of reaching an ad hoc realization that throwing on a few defenders might help to secure a lead, it seems as if we were ready before the match to defend deep and absorb whatever pressure Spuds could muster.

It's the kind of defensive display Arsenal were once known for, in outcome if not method. Somewhere, I hope Graham is smiling.