I’d be quite worried right now if I was a Northern Oiler.
Manchester City may be the champions of England, but Sunday’s game left a strong impression that they are going backwards while the mighty Arsenal are moving forwards.
They may have surged to success last year on a tsunami of oil, but now the tide is receding and if they’re not careful they might find themselves stuck in the tar.
In the equivalent fixture on December 18th last year we lost 1-0 to a David Silva goal in a game we started with no recognised fullbacks.
I remember thinking at the time that we might just have nicked a draw with a bit of good luck. But no honest Gooner could have come away from that defeat feeling we were the stronger team.
Subsequently, of course, we earned a well-deserved three points against them at The Emirates – Mikel Arteta lashing home a memorable winner.
But in neither of last season’s match-ups were we as dominant as we were on Sunday:
Arsenal made 638 passes – 88% of them successful
The Citizens’ made 433 passes – 79% success rate
We also had nearly 59% of the possession. Against the champions. On their own turf.
In last year’s away game we clocked up only 467 passes (81% accurate) compared with City’s 416 (77%).
And even in the home win in April we made a lot fewer passes than Sunday – 539 (82% accurate) against City’s 297 (75%).
I find the statistics interesting because I did not think we were being especially “tippy tappy” at the weekend. I thought, in fact, that our attacking was quite direct at times – so it was a surprise to see that we made a hundred more passes than in last season’s home win.
Digging into the figures a bit more, I found that one of the reasons for us seeming more direct while actually passing a lot more may have been the number of times our players took on an opponent.
On the excellent FourFourTwo Stat Zone phone app (from which all these stats have been gleaned) what we used to call “attempted dribbles” are now known as “take ons.”
On Sunday we had 31 “take ons”, compared with 17 in the corresponding game last year and 19 when we beat the Oilers at our place. That’s a huge increase in the number of occasions our players tried to make something happen by beating an opponent.
For me this increase in attempted dribbles, combined with more passes and a greater degree of passing accuracy, could prove to be the secret formula that will finally enable Arsene Wenger to realise his vision of a trophy-winning team playing beautiful football.
Frankly, it’s what Barcelona do. When they are up against a good defence and can’t pass their way through them, they rely on players like Messi, Xavi and Cesc (when he’s not getting splinters) to force a breakthrough by dribbling past one or more opponents.
Nothing plays more havoc with a team’s defensive strategy than an opponent taking on and beating a defender. The beaten player is temporarily out of the game, the defending team’s organisation is in tatters and new spaces open up for the attackers.
If you only do half of the equation – the tippy tappy passing without the dribbles – you can frequently end up frustrated, which was often the case with the Arsenal team built around Cesc. Remember all that sideways passing across the opposition box in game after game?
To make sure that the number of “take ons” against City was not a blip, I checked the figures for our previous four EPL games this season and compared them with our first four games last season after the transfer window closed (I couldn’t see any point in including the games before then, such as the 8-2 at Old Toilet, when we were all over the place).
This season we averaged 26 “take ons” per game in the first four games. Last season it was a fraction over 18.
There is definitely something going on with our approach to the game. It may be partly to do with personnel (Gervinho is certainly playing with bags of confidence and looking to run at defenders all the time) but I suspect it also represents a subtle, but deliberate change of approach by Le Boss.
I’m no tactical expert, but it really feels to me as if we now have a squad capable of controlling the ball like the best of the “Cesc teams”, but with an extra cutting edge from players willing to take on their opponents in the manner of Pires, Henry and Ljungberg (even if they have some way to go to reach those players’ heights).
Incidentally, of our 31 “take ons” at the Etihad, 12 were by Gervinho. The next highest contributors were Ramsey (5), Jenks (4) and Cazorla (3). Podolski, in a quiet game for him, had zero.
Apologies for the stats overload, but this new approach by Arsenal may be one of the reasons why so many of us feel that this year’s team is more balanced than previous years’.