Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Mertesacker's resurgence against Marseille timed to perfection with return of the Verminator

On Inside The Formation we'll look at an individual player's performance and analyse their input into the game. Today we've decided to switch it up a little and Joss Bennett looks at both Per Metersacker and Thomas Vermaelen's performance against Marseille.

Since signing for Arsenal this summer for a fee of £7.9 million, Per Mertesacker, aka the Big Friendly Giant, has been frustratingly inconsistent. A decent debut against Bolton Wanderers (a 3-0 win in the Premier League) was followed by a poor display in the North London derby loss, before he seemed to find form again in the defeat of Sunderland at home. And so on, and so on. Notice a pattern?

Interestingly, Mertesacker has clearly been more impressive when the Gunners are playing at the Grove (where last season Arsenal lost four times) – picking up a decent average rating of 6.9. It’s perhaps understandable that any player, particularly a new signing from a different league, would feel more comfortable at home.

However, it’s also interesting to note that home sides are generally more attack-minded and therefore generally push the defensive line up the pitch – something a player like Mertesacker would (and indeed has) struggle(d) with.

Which leads me onto my next point, and Mertesacker’s superb defensive display against Marseille; together with Arsenal’s man of the match (according to WhoScored at least), Thomas Vermaelen, the German international helped the Gunners to their first clean sheet in three games.

The first thing to point out in order to ensure I don’t stray from my detailed plan is that Arsene Wenger’s side had a notably lower defensive line – a wise decision considering the raw pace of Marseille’s front line of
Andre Ayew, Loic Remy and Jordan Ayew.

When Arsenal had control of the game (which was for most of the first half, but not much more than that), the defence had the liberty to gradually push up. Unlike most of the media will tell you, this is both an offensive move (to help retain possession), and a defensive one (to reduce the gap between defence and midfield and therefore encourage an aggressive pressing approach).

For the former, both centre-halves had an impressive 89% pass completion rate, while the impact on the players in front of them was evident with Arteta, Song, Ramsey and Rosicky combining to make 10 tackles in

Arsenal will be perhaps be labelled fortunate that, unlike in the reverse fixture two weeks ago, Marseille didn’t attempt to play many balls over the top. Credit must, however, go to the aerial dominance of the defensive pairing (Mertesacker won 80% of his headers, Vermaelen 100%) for dealing with any long-balls the French side did attempt.

The other interesting tactical tweak of note was how narrow Arsenal defended at the back. When the Gunners first started using the 4-3-3 formation in the Premier League, a common theme was pushed up wing-backs and split centre-backs, with the holding player (Alex Song) dropping back to form a three-man defence.

Against Marseille, while Arsenal’s full-backs (Andre Santos in particular) did push up when Arsenal were in the ascendency, they generally showed good awareness and reading of the game to tuck in alongside (just ahead of) the centre-backs and look to force the opposition wingers inside.

From there, the two centre-backs were able to do what they were signed for – tough-tackling, and no-nonsense defending. Although they only made one tackle apiece, they also made seven interceptions and fourteen clearances in total, without giving away a single foul between them – Thomas Vermaelen also blocked two shot attempts.

When Marseille did get the ball into wide areas and create crossing opportunities (25 in total), Wenger's men had enough bodies in the box to deal with them with relative ease (only five of the attempted crosses found a target). The fact that Marseille didn’t attempt a single shot from Arsenal’s left side suggests they may have missed a trick in targeting the more experienced Andre Santos and Vermaelen rather than the shaky Carl Jenkinson and Per Mertesacker.

Arsenal and clean-sheet are two words that are rarely seen in the same sentence, but a solid defensive display all-round means the Gunners more than deserved a point from a tricky fixture. Arsenal’s new signings are really beginning to prove their worth, and everyone will be hoping that Mertesacker can take this form into his next game.

Saturday brings a completely different test – Roy Hodgson’s side have the quality and personnel to mix things up at the Emirates and Wenger will have to make the right decision at the back. With Koscielny hitting form, and Mertesacker (as already stated) impressing at home, the manager faces a hugely desirable conundrum unless he chooses to rest Vermaelen after his first 90 minutes since his injury.

All statistics courtesy of OPTA, via, who also provide ratings.

Joss Bennett is co-editor and head writer of Arsenal blog Arsenal Report - a site for all Gooners interested in tactics, stats and the inner workings of the club. You can follow him on twitter and his read is work at Arsenal Report.

Video produced by CWDailyGoonerCulann Davies is founder, head writer and video editor of Arsenal blog CWDailyGooner - a site for all Gooners interested in analysis of Arsenal's first teamers, youngsters and loanees in video form. You can follow him on twitter and read his work at CWDailyGooner.

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