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Arsenal’s Multiple Winning Ways

Arsenal’s eighth consecutive Premier League victory, secured 1-0 Saturday at Burnley, has brought out the reductionists–again.

How is it possible, ask these crusaders for the simplest explanations, that this club of underachievers has put together the longest winning streak of this league campaign? One prominent writer has attributed all the success to the lucky emergence of midfielder Francis Coquelin.

But there’s no one cause of the team’s current form, just as there was no one source of its relatively slow start to the season. It’s not even possible to pinpoint a style of play or a tactical approach that has produced these results.

Arsenal have instead won in a variety of ways, suggesting that the players and the management can adapt to and profit from many different scenarios.

Taking a beating

On the surface, the win at Turf Moor resembled Arsenal’s earlier victory over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, the second in the current eight-match run. The Gunners won each by one goal, overcoming difficult conditions and opponents who pressed actively and, when they couldn’t win the ball, fouled extensively. Both Burnley and Palace committed 15 fouls against Arsenal; that’s more than 30 percent higher than the average number of fouls in league matches this season (11.4). (Stats from OptaSports via whoscored.com)

There were differences, though, in how Arsenal handled the pressing and fouling. Against Crystal Palace, they relied on defensive solidity, making a whopping 82 clearances. Meanwhile, Palace, breaking the deep-seated perception of Arsenal’s insistence on ball retention, made more passes (366 to 365) and enjoyed 55 percent possession.

Against Burnley, Arsenal depended less on defensive action and more on possession to relieve the pressure. It may have seemed that defending was the priority because Arsenal held a 1-0 lead for 78 minutes and because the interventions, particularly of Coquelin and fullback Nacho Monreal, were obvious and effective.

But the focus was on possession: Arsenal notched 65 percent possession overall, via 688 passes to Burnley’s 303 and 885 touches to Burnley’s 492. This dominance of the ball served to limit Burnley’s pressure on the Arsenal goal to a handful of moments.

Pressing for opportunities

The match prior to the trip to Burnley, the glorious 4-1 home win over Liverpool, featured a different approach. Arsenal pressed early for the advantage, targeting the visitors’ suspect defense. The Gunners’ dominance at the outset was not rewarded with a goal, nor was Liverpool’s brief surge. Arsenal then reasserted themselves and reaped the reward of three goals within eight minutes just before halftime.

Adrian Clarke turns his typically keen eye on all the goals on The Breakdown on the club’s Website, and there’s not much I can add here.

What can be said is that in the second half, Arsenal’s changed tack. The 3-0 lead gave the team license to sit deep and thwart Liverpool’s attacks, and for the most part, this rendered Liverpool’s possession impotent.

The approach had been similar in establishing and managing a 2-0 halftime lead at Newcastle, but in that case Newcastle broke the containment earlier in the second half and then set upon an Arsenal side tiring from its exertions in the Champions League three days before.

The tactics employed against Newcastle — and against Manchester United in the 2-1 FA Cup victory — are evidence of a finely tailored system. It’s not just in home matches when conditions are favorable that Arsenal seek to impose themselves through pressing; the Gunners also press the opposition on its own turf. They don’t, however, press indiscriminately or universally. They take the opportunities each match and opponent present.

Another example of this team’s opportunistic streak is its performance on set pieces. Arsenal have scored more goals from free kicks, corner kicks, throw-ins, and penalties (20) than any other Premier League side, including six during the eight-game winning run. (Squawka.com)

Encouraging indications

These trends reveal elements of the team’s makeup that should encourage Arsenal supporters. Both focused defending and opportunistic pressing require discipline, which, Tim of 7AMKickoff rightly argues has helped shape a more solid, successful side (“Swapping Santi for Ramsey, staying home, and Coquelin: Arsenal’s New Balance“). It relies less on improvisational genius and more on collective understanding.

Part of that understanding is relational, meaning the players know where each other will be. They also seem more attuned to the tactical picture and to the competitive situation. (The home Champions League leg against Monaco stands out precisely because the team failed to recognize that the contest was not 90 but 180 minutes long.)

Midfielder Tomas Rosicky recently confirmed the team’s work on this front. “We changed some stuff slightly in our preparation for these [big] games,” he told the Arsenal Website. “We’re doing a little more tactical work, and we changed some stuff against the big teams.

“I don’t want to go into the details, but there were some adjustments, and it’s paid off for us.”

Rosicky, a player of substantial experience and one of the club’s improvisational geniuses, says that the approach is deliberate and stresses its positive difference. That he would make such a statement suggests that the changes are meaningful.

These adjustments have improved Arsenal’s ability to manage the flow of a match. Even when it isn’t controlling the ball, as in the second half against Liverpool, it’s largely controlling the most dangerous spaces of the pitch. This stems from and reinforces the group’s composure, a word NBC Sports analyst Graeme Le Saux used repeatedly to describe Arsenal against Burnley.

The increased tactical attention and expectations of discipline also carry personnel implications. It pays for players to be both intelligent and versatile. Not only must they understand when various postures are called for, they must be able to execute them. Hence, we see Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck much more often than Theo Walcott. (See “Theo Walcott and Arsenal’s Best Attack” for deeper analysis of this development.)

The results in the last eight league matches have been overwhelmingly positive. What’s just as promising is that the team has delivered these results in a variety of ways. That’s an indication of the intriguing, enjoyable football to come from Arsenal.

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