Secrets to Arsenal's Success on the Road This Season

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2014

Arsenal are the road warriors of the English Premier League. The table-toppers have claimed 25 of their 47 points this season away from home.

The recent 2-1 win over Aston Villa was Arsenal's eighth road victory of the campaign. Their success away from the confines of the Emirates Stadium is built on a few key factors.

The first is a solid base at the back. In Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, the Gunners boast the best centre-back partnership in the EPL and possibly all of European football right now.

Neither one is the catalyst for the other's success, although Mertesacker can lay claim to being the most dominant central defender in the EPL.

The real secret to the success of the Mertesacker-Koscielny partnership is the comfort level between the two. When one steps out, the other drops in to cover. They consistently act as a unit.

Winning away from home demands defensive solidity and Mertesacker and Koscielny have become a guarantee of that.

With things taken care of at the back, the next secret to Arsenal's road form allows the Gunners to seize control. It comes from the naturally fearless philosophy of manager Arsene Wenger.

As Sky Sports' commentators noted during Monday night's win over Villa, Wenger doesn't believe being away from home should make any difference in how his side controls the ball.

Where most managers may adopt a cautious approach to away fixtures, particularly during the early stages, Wenger has always insisted his team plays its usual, possession-hogging game.

Over the years that insistence may have gotten the Frenchman and his team in some trouble. But it is also a point of pride that Arsenal will go to any stadium and begin owning the ball.

In road games, that seizes the initiative and applies further pressure to the home team. The hosts are expected by their own fans to take the game to any visitor.

That expectation serves as a massive boost to a team like Arsenal. Wenger is used to seeing opponents come to the Emirates Stadium with a stifling mentality.

Visitors to the red half of North London will routinely pack the midfield and crowd numbers behind the ball. Their first thought is always to destroy, rather than create.

Wenger must have lost count of how many teams embodying negativity have stolen points from Arsenal's home. But he can take comfort knowing that away from that home, Arsenal will be afforded more space.

This is something he pointed out to toward the end of last season:

We have been strong away from home and we had a good stability.

How do you explain that? I believe that at home at the beginning of the season, we played with some fear.

Away from home we played with more freedom and expressed more our game and maybe as well because the home teams attack more against us than they do at the Emirates. Away from home we have had a good season.

When teams respond to the rallying cry of their home fans and pour forward, they play right into what Arsenal do best. They become vulnerable to the kind of quick-counter, combination play that defines Wenger's brand of attacking football.

Fulham were the first to feel the wrath of Arsenal's counter attacking prowess this season. The Gunners scored twice on the break to seal a 3-1 win at Craven Cottage in late-August 2013.

Swansea City were also humbled by a pair intricately plotted counter moves that helped Arsenal leave the Liberty Stadium 2-1 winners at the end of September.

Improved play on the break has been one of the defining features of Arsenal's away success. Proficiency on the counter usually demands pace, which is one of the reasons injured speedster Theo Walcott will be missed.

But in truth, there is variety to the way Arsenal break. Bullish centre-forward Olivier Giroud's ability to hold up the ball provides a natural outlet any time Arsenal steal possession in their own half.

Giroud's talent for linking well with others, always one of the best features of his game, at the tip of triangles has created a plethora of goals for these Gunners.

When Arsenal counter it is not necessarily the speed of their runners that exposes teams, but the pace of their ideas and passing. Villa found that out to their cost on Monday night.

Less than a minute after Arsenal had opened the scoring, Villains midfield man Fabian Delph was robbed by Jack Wilshere. The young England international wasted no time lofting a chipped pass to Giroud, who had made a smart run, peeling off to the left corner of the box.

Giroud's first touch was excellent, and compensated for some clumsy subsequent contact with the ball, before he smashed a thumping shot across goal and into the bottom right corner.

The whole action was as swift as it was emphatic. Wilshere won possession, passed to Giroud, who controlled the ball and fired it into the net.

The goal was the very best of Arsenal this season. There was tenacity out of possession to go and hunt the ball back. That was followed by a quick decision and quality execution to match the idea.

Those efforts were rewarded by a confident finish. That is Arsenal in a nutshell this season.

Speaking of that confident finish, it revealed another secret to why Arsenal are such a tough nut to crack on the road. This is a much more ruthless group of players when chances come their way.

Take the first goal against Villa as a prime example. Mesut Ozil played a brilliant through pass, his only meaningful contribution of the night, to release left-back Nacho Monreal.

The Spaniard played the ball across the box to Wilshere, who took a touch and nudged the ball into the corner of the net.

That was it. Three decisive touches, two smart passes and a classy finish produced a goal. That is just how Wenger's best teams have always done it.

Opponents now cede possession to Arsenal at their peril. By contrast, the Gunners are now more willing to surrender the ball once they have a lead.

While Arsenal shouldn't make a habit of the downright sluggish fare they produced in the second half at Villa Park, they are certainly more adept at holding a lead and seeing out a win.

Part of that stems from a willingness to drop numbers behind the ball, rather than over-committing for more goals. It is a balancing act and it can be dangerous, as it very nearly was against Villa.

But the difference is that two seasons ago Arsenal would have lost their lead. They would have drawn or even been beaten by Villa. This team doesn't loosen a grip on three points so easily.

They didn't at St. James's Park, when they beat Newcastle United 1-0 on December 29th. The trick was repeated against Villa.

It is a trend most vividly portrayed in Wenger's substitutions, which are blatantly defensive whenever Arsenal hold even a slight advantage.

Arsenal, long the staunch proponents of football's beautiful side, now have a knack for winning ugly.

Finally, one secret to Arsenal's away day glories that often goes unnoticed is the lift provided by playing away from the Emirates.

I have sat many times in that stadium and experienced the sometimes toxic backlash of home fans toward a club that has gone so long without a trophy.

It often feels like there is an expectation of failure from sections of the stands. It is perhaps an understandable feeling after nearly a decade of near-misses, late-game collapses and failures on the big stage.

But it is also easy to believe how the simmering wrath from the stands transmits to the players. Particularly in big games, Arsenal can be ultra-cagey at home.

They often play a restricted game, where the fear of making a mistake and raising the ire of the terraces is tangible. When on the road, the Gunners are noticeably more bold. It makes a huge difference.

Wenger noted this trend in an interview with from October 2012, when he noted: “Maybe [we’ve] played with less freedom at home - with a bit more pressure."

Arsenal are the visiting team nobody wants to welcome because they have the defensive base that can help them survive anywhere. They are also now more willing to go pragmatic and value negation over creation.

But that doesn't mean Wenger's men won't still dominate possession on opposition turf. When they have the ball they will play freely and use it with a ruthless efficiency lacking in previous years.

When they don't have possession, home teams are only one mistake away from being undone by a lightning-fast counter.

While Manchester City and Chelsea appear more dominant, Arsenal's ability to plunder the most spoils on the road could be the decisive factor in this title race.


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