The Gunners initially struggled after the Dutchman’s sale, but have since blossomed into a more varied and balanced attack and are just two points worse off than last season
By Ewan Roberts
Having made their worst start to a league season in the Arsene Wenger era, Arsenal fans were understandably perturbed by their club’s form and the gaping hole left by the sale of Robin van Persie.
Olivier Giroud, considered the Dutchman’s replacement, took some time to adjust to English football and there was a fear that the Gunners would struggle without the 30-goal haul Van Persie managed last season – 22 strikes more than any other player in the Arsenal squad.
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But to compare Giroud to Van Persie, or contrast this season with last, is to overlook the new approach Wenger has decided to take. Rather than sign a like-for-like replacement, rather than continue to place all the goalscoring burden on one player, Wenger adapted his side and brought in three new faces to share that burden.
Those three new recruits – Santi Cazorla (nine), Lukas Podolski (eight) and Giroud (nine) – have struck 26 times so far this season, at a strike rate of a goal a game. Van Persie actually struck less regularly, averaging a goal every 1.27 games.
Add to that the 11 goals scored by the increasingly fearsome Theo Walcott, and Arsenal’s attack, as a collective, is now considerably more potent.
The front line is also less reliant on any one player now. Last year, Arsenal boasted a win rate of 75 per cent when Van Persie scored (and averaged 2.56 goals per game in those matches). But when the Dutchman did not score, Arsenal won just 34% of their matches, scoring 22 goals in 23 games.
If Walcott, for example, does not score, there are a plethora of other players who can step up – against Stoke it was Podolski, against Sunderland it was Cazorla. Last year, when van Persie (who plundered 40.5% of the Gunners’ league goals) did not score, the team ceased to function, but this year, with no player accounting for more than 22% of their goals, Arsenal have no crutch upon which the team rests.
For the first time since Wenger joined the club in 1996, Arsenal look set to finish the season with four players in double figures for goals scored in the Premier League.
Even when Wenger had squads brimming with talent, the Invincibles for example (Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Dennis Bergkamp, Sylvain Wiltord, Nwankwo Kanu), Arsenal never finished a league season with more than three players in double figures.
Not only do the north London club have a greater spread of goalscorers now, the nature of their threat is more varied than with Van Persie in the side.
Arsenal have not sought the frontman as regularly or directly this season. Last year, for example, Alex Song frequently lofted passes behind the defence for Van Persie to latch onto – you’d automatically recall the Cameroonian’s floated passes over the Norwich, Everton and Liverpool defences which the Dutchman volleyed into the back of the net.
But now Arsenal are spreading the play more, widening the pitch. Only five sides in the Premier League have spent less time attacking through the middle than the Gunners, with just 28% of their offensive moves coming centrally. The wing play is evenly divided, with 35% coming down the left, and 38% down the right.
Similarly, the percentage of forward passes has decreased with greater emphasis placed on moving the play wide. Last year, 45.14% of Arsenal’s passes were forwards and just 29.39% to the left or right. This year those stats have flipped, with 32.3% of passes going forwards and 52.92% going to the left or right.
Partly as a result of that, Arsenal (26) have attempted the joint-second most crosses in the league behind only West Ham (29). There’s evidently more aerial threat about Arsenal since Giroud joined the club, with four of the forward’s nine goals coming with his head, and he has converted several crosses with his feet too.
The more the play is stretched, the more room in the middle of the pitch for Arsenal’s more dribble-orientated midfielders to exploit, more chance to isolate opposition players. Only Liverpool have attempted more dribbles than Arsenal this year, though the gunners have a far better success rate.
Last year, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was Arsenal’s most frequent dribbler, attempting 1.6 per game. This season, four players have bettered that tally, with Wilshere and Cazorla averaging 2.6 and 2.3 per game. Arsenal also have three players – Gervinho (6.6), Oxlade-Chamberlain (5) and Wilshere (4.8) – in the top eight for dribbles per 90 minutes in the Premier League.
Arsenal are a team prepared to take more risks now, and the preoccupation with ball retention is of less importance. Where once they would have stubbornly passed the ball around, trying to walk it into the opponent’s net, they can now breach the midfield or defensive blocks with a subtle jink or a tricky dribble.
That boom or bust attitude, high risk versus high reward, has extended to shooting too. The Gunners’ attack is now loaded with players willing to try their luck from range, such as Podolski, Cazorla and Mikel Arteta, and 42% of their total shots on goal have come from outside the box.
Arsenal new-found amalgamation of varying goal types was most evident in the 5-1 win over West Ham. There was a Podolski thunderbolt from long range, a converted corner, two subtle finishes after fizzed crosses by the German and, mixed in with that, a trademark Arsenal goal, with lovely one-touch interplay preceding a deft flick from Cazorla.
Replacing Van Persie with a like-for-like replacement would have been both impossible and unhelpful, and in not falling into that trap Arsenal are now no longer reliant on one player. They’re a more balanced side, full of different threats and different ways to score.
There may be no one great strength, no one great goalscorer, but equally there is no one way to stop their vivacious and varied attack.
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