Arsenal go into this game with mixed feelings, on a high after beating their north London rivals 5-2, but in the back of their minds a deep insecurity about their current position and future prospects.
Fourth place is all that Arsenal players have left to fight for this season after recently being dumped out of the FA cup and Champions league. During the last month their defensive weaknesses have been cruelly exposed, coupled with inability to win on the road (only 1 away win since Christmas) has got even the Arsenal faithful questioning the direction of the club.
With Champions league qualification a minimum, this is as much a must win game for Wenger, as it is for us in the battle for 4th place.
Arsenals tactics this season have remained a constant 4-2-3-1 , with a highly variable backline which like to play the offside trap. In front of the defense Song and a much revived Arteta like to try dictate play in midfield, with Walcot, Ramsey and Gervinho typically behind Van Persie in attack. Wenger has stuck hard and fast to his philosophy of how he feels the game should be played, with short, patient passing football, irrespective of individuals within his team or the opposition. This philosophy has meant they have had more possession than any other team in the league, averaging 58%, impressively most of this is in the opposition half. Most of their goals though are scored on the break, attacking using the flanks, relying heavily on Van Persie, not only to score but also create.
Without doubt Van Persie is their man player, you could go as far to say Arsenal are pretty much a one man team. He has not just been the star on this side, but arguably the best player in the premiership. His overall game has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, and seems to relish being the main man with the departure of Nasri and Fabregas. This season he has scored an impressive 23 PL goals (6 less than the entire Liverpool team combined), add his 8 assists he has had a direct hand in at least 31 of Arsenals 53 goals (58%). It goes without saying it will be essential to stop him.
Whilst his goal scoring has gotten all the headlines, it has been his link up play and movement that has particularly impressed me this year.
A tactic used too much success has been a concentrated effort by Van Persie to push the opposition defenders back. He will then drop off into the space between defense and midfield, making him very difficult for the opposition to pick him up, as one of the attacking midfielders will run into an area Van Persie has just vacated. Often a static backline (in formation) is maintained in pushed back position, however Van Persie now has space to thread through a key pass, or onto a wide player running at pace, typically Walcot.
Picking up Van Persie is made even more difficult as he has license to roam and influence the game in the way he feels best. This means that besides having the highest number of goals 23 (vs 5 Walcott), highest number of assists 8 (vs 7 Walcott) , highest number of key passes 63 (vs 47 Ramsey), highest number of successful dribbles 31 (vs 30 Walcott) he also has the highest number of crosses 35 (vs 18 Arteta).
4th place for Arsenal essentially rests on his shoulders.
Arsenals defense is widely known as their weakness, with the 5th worst defense in the league when playing away from home (26 goals conceded). Having conceded 8 goals in their last 3 games (with at least 3 different CB pairings used) I am not convinced even Wenger knows what his strongest defense line is.
As confidence is low they are prone to individual errors, this has created a lack of trust on the entire backline. Against Sunderland, Milan and Spurs the fullbacks kept going very narrow to act as cover for the center backs in case they made an error. In all three games this created acres of space for the opposition to exploit.
How to beat them
The result against Spurs, showed both sides to Arsenal and how they can be particularly dangerous if you lose defensive shape and discipline. Up until we lost Agger, our most intelligent CB at reading the game, I was confident our defense could contain Van Persie’s movement. However this is going be the biggest task of the day. Kenny could take up one of two approaches, play a direct game with our usual 4-4-2 and exploit their defense, or more likely 4-5-1 with Spearing tasked to helping provide defensive cover as we ensure we are not over run in midfield (and surrendering possession).