Tactics Column: The players of the season

After Arsenal secured fourth place with the 1-0 win over Newcastle United and a chance of Champions League football next season, Arsene Wenger hailed his “special” players. In particular, he praised their mental strength as they overturned a seven-point gap from Tottenham Hotspur. The resilience showed in the team’s performances as they went nine league games unbeaten, and swapped their usual swashbuckling style for a more pragmatic approach. The belief was sowed after Arsenal’s Champions League win over Bayern Munich and set the tone for the rest of the season. It was a design based on efficiency, greater organisation and communication at the back but very reliant on taking what little chances the team creates. Arsenal took those chances and while getting to fourth place was overwhelmingly team effort, here are the five players who I think stood out most in 2012/13.

1. Santi Cazorla

The selfless way in which Santi Cazorla ended the season almost makes you forget just how good he was at the start of the campaign. Indeed, he had to alter his game twice for Arsenal in the season; the first, when he joined the club, as he was deployed in what was at the time, an unfamiliar role just behind the striker. He certainly gave no impressions as such when the season kicked-off and he started incredibly, asserting himself as the hub of creativity that Arsenal were built around. But that was also the team’s problem because at times – especially during a bleak period in the middle of the season – they were too reliant on the Spanish schemer.

Cazorla’s best performance was probably in the 3-1 win in October against West Ham United, showing just why he has the best passing figures in the final third of any player in the top 5 leagues. As ever, he glided across the pitch to always end up in dangerous positions but it’s remarkable to see just how high he played in that match: almost on level with Olivier Giroud. Actually, Wenger deserves a lot of credit for the tactical foresight to play Cazorla as the “second striker” and in the game, unsettled West Ham’s defence by starting high up, moving backwards to receive the ball and then bursting forward unexpectedly to get into good scoring or passing positions. That’s how he got his goal in the game, picking the ball up on the edge of the area and letting fly with his left-foot.

It was when Tomas Rosicky returned to the side that Arsenal could share the burden of creativity and Santi Cazorla was shifted to the left wing. He was less explosive from the side but he was no less influential, often drifting infield and getting into positions that he only knew how to get to, yet was still Arsenal’s chief playmaker. It will be interesting to see how Arsenal share the responsibility to create next season; fielding Cazorla in a roaming role on the left allows Wenger to name another creative midfielder in the line-up. Yet, Cazorla is so good that he must surely be central to Arsenal’s plans next season.

2. Per Mertesacker

Criminally, it took three-quarters of the season for Arsene Wenger to make Laurent Koscielny his 1st-choice centre-back (although it is said it might have come sooner had Naxto Monreal not arrived when he did as having a left-footer alongside him – Thomas Vermaelen – would supposedly bed him into the squad much quicker). Thankfully, Wenger realised Per Mertesacker’s worth earlier in the season although it came at a cost: a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea in September in which he was dropped because it was felt he lacked the mobility to cope with The Blues front four. However, Mertesacker was a mainstay in the side soon after.

Laurent Koscielny’s stellar end to the campaign was probably more aesthetically pleasing but Mertesacker represented an ideological shift to Arsenal’s backline, and that’s why he makes it ahead of him in this list. Because Per Mertesacker does things that the other centre-backs don’t do, and his presence in the line-up has a calming effect on whoever he partners. That has been evident in the case of Koscielny whose performances alongside captain Vermaelen had looked slightly erratic, as the stats show here, but has improved immensely with Mertesacker alongside him. Indeed, is there a case, considering the contrast in displays from the first half of the season to the second, that Mertesacker makes Koscielny better? The answer is probably no, but the fact that it is even discussed highlights how crucial Mertesacker has become to this Arsenal side.

3. Mikel Arteta

If I was to say Arsenal were a stronger team in 2012/13 as opposed to the last, much of that reasoning would be down to Mikel Arteta. Because last season was a side largely by the awesomeness of Robin van Persie and his goals masked structural deficiencies in the squad. Alex Song and Mikel Arteta weren’t much of a partnership as neither player took responsibility to hold in front of the defence. This season, Arteta has done just that on his own and in the second half of the campaign, was liberated in a sense, by the breakthrough of Aaron Ramsey.

Tactically, Arteta has been superb, breaking up play with both his reading of play and improved robustness in the challenge. Indeed, those are backed up by the stats, completing on average 3.2 tackles per game and 3 interceptions, making him Arsenal’s best defensive player (and top 10 in the Premier League). But he’s also the team’s first line of attack, initiating forward play with his accurate passing (and has an underrated burst of pace too which allows him to get away from the opponent’s first line of press).

4. Theo Walcott

While Gareth Bale often finds his free-kicks hit the back of the net with pinpoint accuracy, Theo Walcott can sometimes see his shanked horribly off-target. Both practice hard at set-pieces; Theo Walcott more so on his technique than necessarily trying to craft a niche from such shooting opportunities. For Gareth Bale, detail is everything, from the stance to the run up, and he strikes the ball in particular way so that it achieves maximum top spin rather than bend.

From that example, one might dissect a harsh conclusion of the paths of the two careers, but players both ought to be mentioned in the same breath as the season now that the season is behind us.

Theo Walcott’s numbers are magnificent, scoring 14 goals and delivering 10 assists altogether in the league. He’s not carried the team quite in the same sense Gareth Bale has, and in any case, the comparisons are unfair, but he’s transformed himself into one of the best players in the Premier League.

Walcott’s performances in the middle of the season in particular, were of the level we’d expect him to become and against Newcastle in the 7-3 win, he delivered one of the most destructive performances of the season. Theo Walcott is key for Arsenal because he’s probably the only player who gives depth to their attack, whether that’s starting from the middle or the right.

5. Olivier Giroud

The popularity of Olivier Giroud it’s argued is symptomatic of the club going nowhere fast. Whether that’s the case or not, it must be agreed that he has had to shoulder a tremendous amount of responsibility. He’s Arsenal’s only recognised striker – and as such, only probably makes this list by default. Nevertheless, it’s still been a big season for Giroud.

He has scored 11 league goals, which is not a shabby return for somebody who is still developing himself. But his role goes beyond being just the main goalscorer and as such, it is probably why Wenger is willing to overlook some of his deficiencies. Not that he has many because Giroud can do everything. He’s technical (for a big man), can hold the ball up, and bring others into play, runs the channels well and works very hard. That means it carries little risk for a team that is still adapting to playing with each other. In that sense, Giroud acts as bit of a buffer, lessening the impact of this adjustment period by taking hits for the team as they strive to find better balance and understanding. Of course, Giroud still has a fair bit to go before he can call himself Arsenal’s undisputed first-choice striker but for Wenger, that’s alright if only what Giroud does is make Arsenal play.

Honourable mentions

Aaron Ramsey: Had a great end to the campaign, and promises to be a crucial player for Arsenal once he becomes a little more decisive.

Kieran Gibbs: Has tough competition in the form of Monreal but has arguably surpassed him in recent months. His recovery speed is a huge plus.

Laurent Koscielny: Another player who ended the season well, if only because he never really got the chance earlier on. His anticipation is a joy to watch.

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