ARSENAL’S Champions League experiences have helped them to transform their style from rapier-football to rope-a-dope.
Last night they took what they had learned in Spain and Italy to Lancashire and used it to beat Manchester City, their first win in the North West since the 3-2 against Wigan in November.
February, March and April have seen a fascinating stylistic evolution and the elements within that evolution have been ignored by the newspapers.
Without Ashley Cole and Vieira, two mainstays of their left-sided raiding for the last five years, Arsenal have had to find another way of winning games, and the team has stuttered and groped towards a style that is now quite balanced and solid.
Yes, it’s embryonic, but it has become, after some pitiful performances and eleven Premiership defeats, quite solid.
Martin Keown has no formal coaching role at the club, but it’s clear (from what Toure and Flamini have said) that his input has improved the defence.
The turning point was playing 4-5-1 in Madrid on February 21st and winning 1-0 and showing that they could defend a lead. They defended that one-goal lead in the second leg, defended a 2-0 lead against Juventus, and defended a 1-0 lead against Villareal. It wasn’t spectacular, but they defended their lead and it worked. The job had to be done that way. They had to be realistic because their goal-making machinery had been dismantled.
When Arsenal were slicing teams open with lightning pass-and-move down the left flank, with Pires, Henry and Cole interchanging, and Ljungberg racing diagonally into scoring positions, their right flank resembled the Bermuda Triangle.
Just as hundreds of aircraft and ships went into that mysterious danger zone – between Miami, Bermuda and Puerto Rico – and were never seen again, so hundreds of balls went down the Arsenal right flank and were never seen again.
It was : Lauren up to Ljungberg, square to Lauren, forward to Freddie, who won a throw or a free-kick, maybe. Nothing ever came from it. I’m not exaggerating : Nothing ever came from it. The right flank moves were as exciting as watching grass grow.
As we realised that Freddie would never be the same player after his injuries, we saw his goal output decline. Arsenal needed more ways of scoring a goal, even when Freddie was scoring. When he stopped scoring, it was a big problem.
When Freddie was in his prime he gave the team so much with his fire, his guts, his well-timed runs, his competitive instinct, his ability to finish one-on-one chances against top keepers in pressure games.
Freddie was a little hero.
LAST NIGHT’S 3-1 win at Man City saw Arsene Wenger using his resources cleverly from the bench. They were lucky that Freddie’s goal stood, since he was half a yard offside. It came from a sublime pass by Henry, a wonder-pass, and it was an amazing finish, under pressure, on his weaker foot, hitting the ball low and early and beating David James by hitting it early.
I said, “I thought I would never see him do that again! That was a world class Marc Overmars goal !”
The equaliser was from a corner with right back David Sommeil scoring a Chelsea goal, like Gallas does so well, when Trevor Sinclair headed the ball down into the six yard box and Lehmann missed it because he was thinking about Vassell obstructing him a moment before.
AT HALF-TIME, Sky studio guest Paul Merson said that, considering Arsenal needed to win the game, he had expected more from them. Merse doesn’t quite realise how Arsenal’s style is evolving. Arsene wanted to win the game but he didn’t want to have to win it twice.
They were also lucky that Graham Poll did not give a penalty for Toure’s impetuous foul on Darius Vassell in 65 when the score was 1-1.
IN THE SECOND HALF, we saw the best football Arsenal have played for a while and we saw a team with two flanks. The Bermuda Triangle has been replaced by a highly productive axis of Fabregas, Hleb and Eboue.
Hleb is a creative player who was average last night because Fabregas was not there with him. Hleb is always better when Fabregas is there because Fabregas always looks for him.
Fabregas replaced Song in 58, and in 67 Hleb hit a left-foot Bobby Charlton shot that David James tipped over.
Arsenal struggled to defend corners and Lehmann got rattled when Richard Dunne karate-kicked him in the ribs as four bodies jumped together for a high ball
In 72, Reyes and Pires came on for Hleb and van Persie and that was a shame for Hleb, who had only played 14 minutes with Fabregas,
But in 77 Eboue roared away down the right flank and got to the touchline like a Sixties winger and cut the ball back perfectly for Reyes to make it 2-1.
THIERRY HENRY was at his most mesmeric last night. His cruising run, backing Richard Dunne into the box, allowed him to pass to Reyes, whose fierce curving shot killed the game at 3-1.
Reyes needed a goal. He was rubbish in Villareal, indescribably bad, and he really needed a goal.
ASHLEY COLE played well in the last half hour after feeling his way into the game, as you need to do when you haven’t started in seven months and want to complete 90 minutes. He paced himself early on, and Arsenal’s more circumspect style allowed him to do that.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, an Arsenal kick-off was like the starter’s pistol in an Olympic 100 Metres Final, but now their game isn’t so much about ensemble sprinting.
So the 2006 Arsenal play matches that have a different pattern from the glory days of 2004 and the 49-game unbeaten run.
This Arsenal doesn’t have a 20-minute cavalry charge down the left flank and it doesn’t have the Bermuda Triangle on the right.
There was always a 20-minute blitz of fast passing, then a lull as the other team came back into the game.
This is a more exploratory approach, with half an hour of sparring, where the two teams pepper each other’s elbows with light punches, feeling out each other’s balance, their reflexes, their speed, their weak points. It’s not so much based on quick passing and narrow runs to support the ball, or on scoring first, although Arsenal still score first in most games.
Their 2002-2004 style was all about Henry-Cole-Pires being supplied quickly by Vieira, Bergkamp and others, so that they could penetrate defences at high speed.
As the personnel has evolved, the style of the team has become completely Thierryfied.
The team now follows Thierry’s moods and waits for his mood to change. As he feels his way into a game, so the team feels its way into a game with him. If Thierry is rubbish for the first 15, Arsenal are rubbish for the first 15 and create nothing.
In 2002, Arsene Wenger created a vehicle for Thierry Henry. In 2006, without Lauren, Vieira and Bergkamp, he has had to create a different vehicle for his main man, and it has not been easy.The new vehicle is quite robust, but it’s a prototype.
So the 2006 Arsenal is based on (1) a more cagey opening period and (2) the ability to defend a lead and (3) very fit players who can compete for 94 minutes and score late goals. Arsenal have scored more goals in the last 15 minutes than any other Prem team.
The 2006 Arsenal are winning their contests on points rather than a TKO in Round 4.
The Reyes goals came in 77 and 84.Those Reyes goals are the 20th and 21st goals they’ve scored in the last 15 minutes of games.
How can Arsenal do that? Quite simple. They can be collectively faster in the last 15 minutes of a game because they have not burned up as much energy in the first 20. And because the team is younger.
In this sunny Spring of 2006, Arsenal are boxing clever and they will continue to box clever against Wigan and Barcelona.
THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE is history now. It’s gone.
But it’s not forgotten. I always think of it when I want to go to sleep: Lauren … Freddie … Lauren…. Freddie…. Lauren….Freddie….throw-in…….Zzzzzzzzzz