They may just be right after all. In recent weeks, the grumblings have grown in volume once again. The run up to the end of the season for Arsenal Football Club almost seems written in stone year on year. A team that at times has looked unstoppable in attack now looks as if they don’t know who they are. In the press the same questions are being asked of this team that have been asked for a decade now, and despite Mr. Wenger’s insistence at the beginning of the season on an improved mentality, the same answers are being given. So yes, Arsenal may finally need a change.
But not the one you might think.
Arsene Wenger is not a defensive coach. He wasn’t when he arrived in London, and he is not now. His philosophy on football is one of flowing beauty, a structured improvisation between eleven players working in harmony on the pitch. In 2012, after 48 years with Arsenal, Assistant Pat Rice was replaced by “Famous Back 4” member, and youth team coach, Steve Bould. Stories from the first month of that season indicate a team with a new diligence in defense, starting the league campaign with 3 clean sheets, and the name Steve Bould often being cited as a reason why.
Fast forward nearly five years. Has it worked? Sure, back to back FA cups in ’14 and ’15 isn’t nothing, and finishing above the Spurs always tastes good, but can those not be attributed at least as much to the end of stadium finance restrictions as a new assistant manager?
The fact remains that none of this IS good enough for most Arsenal fans. Steve Bould was supposed to bring the organization and no nonsense “get it back and move it on” approach back to the Arsenal back line. Now Arsene Wenger is the popular man to point to when looking at the squad’s recent woes, but it is the defence that continues to let this team down. Not the attack, not the play style, and certainly not the familial culture that he has created around the club. Happy people traditionally are more likely to succeed, so the argument that many Arsenal players fail to perform because they are too sheltered and comfortable doesn’t fly with me.
The management of a football club, much like the squad itself, is a team effort. The manager is the general, the man out front who soaks up the blame and the accolades in equal measure as they come. But all managers would acknowledge that they are not alone. They have a trusted staff, some that have been working with the manager for years, and also some that came with the furniture and the keys to the stadium. Each of these assistants have a defined set of responsibilities within the team. Some specialize in tactics, some man management, and some still in the sciences of performance.
Well Steve Bould’s job came with a primary task. To organize and improve the defence. The Achilles heel of the high flying Barca-lite teams of the mid to late ’00s, defence was the unit in desperate need of attention as the wonderful career of Pat Rice came to a close. Bould took the job with the understanding that he would be able to actually do the job, amidst the rumors of Rice’s diminished involvement in training at the end of his career. Essentially, Bould wanted to be sure he would be able to coach his way, and not just be a passenger.
I ask again. Has it worked?
Assuming that Wenger is not the problem, but rather just needs better help, that leaves three options. The first being that the players are not good enough, second, that Steve Bould is not being given the input or power to fix and organize the defence, and finally, that Steve Bould is simply not the man for the job.
Let’s start with option one: the players are not good enough. Well, as a team chock full of internationals in goal, defence and midfield, Arsenal don’t lack globally recognized talent. So whether it is the cornerstone of a nation’s defense (Koscielny), an integral squad player (Mustafi), a peripheral 1st teamer (Gibbs, Monreal) or a future star (Bellerin), there is simply too much talent on the back end and even in the midfield and in net to say that the players are the problem.
As for option two, there has been no indication that Bould is not allowed to coach the defence as he sees fit. On the pitch there has even been evidence of experimentation this year, at times employing, or attempting to employ, a high press, as in the visit to a Stamford Bridge, or playing deeper more counter attack oriented football, as with the Manchester United and Bayern Munich games.
This all leads rather neatly to option three. Just look at the team you see out there on the pitch, week in and week out. The class when Arsenal have the ball is undeniable, but the defence, to anyone trained to observe that sort of thing, is almost comical. There is no identity to this team’s defensive shape. The Bayern Munich game exposed many of these issues even further. A championship contender does not defend like they did at the Allianz. Seemingly stuck in some sort of limbo between 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 in their own end, the shift in shape seemed just as much to do with the wingers and midfielders having zero confidence in Mesut Ozil taking up a defensive position than any real organized plan. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain spent the entire game trying to figure out if he was supposed to be pressing up high or pinch in to make a midfield three to neutralize the skill advantage Bayern possessed in the center of the pitch. Alex Iwobi ran all night up and down the flank, and almost none of it was with the ball.
Most other elite attack minded coaches such as Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel marry their similar possession oriented (less so with the Germans than the Catalan) free flowing attack with a cohesive defensive style, usually predicated on the high press and quickly winning the ball back. The idea being here to take advantage of the pace and quickness of these elite attacking players on their roster to close down the space on the pitch when the opposition is in possession. These players do not have to be adept tacklers so much as disrupters. Then, when the ball is won back closer to the opposition goal, the team is on the front foot ready to go forward in numbers.
You do not see this with Arsenal though. There is no defensive identity. Look at how and when they press opponents. The team is so thoroughly unorganized without the ball that they rely on a diminutive winger turned center forward to spearhead the press, which seems to be activated not by traditional triggers such as a bouncer through the middle or a pass to a defender facing his own goal, but rather by said player waving his arms frantically at the rest of the forwards and sprinting off in pursuit of the ball. In their own end it is even worse, with a number 11 that lacks not only the pace to play as the high man while the team defends, but also all effort required to be a useful part of a midfield three. This means that you see Olivier Giroud as part of the midfield “bank of four” on set pieces and during sustained possessions, you see wingers confused as to which man they should pick up, and it is why you still see a team searching for answers 12 years on from its last triumph in the Premier League.
In many ways, Arsene Wenger has insured that Arsenal will be able to compete financially with the world’s biggest clubs for many years to come. His work in modernizing the facilities and the team have made them a truly attractive place to play football. Arsenal have what very few teams in the history of football can claim: a true football identity. There is an Arsenal Way. Wengerball some might call it. He is a man people respect and a man players want to play for, despite what certain members of the media may have you believe. But he is also a man that needs help. Arsenal don’t need to start over, but they do need to bring in someone new to work on the defense. After five years, this team should not be struggling to figure out which shape to play in their own half.
To all the #WengerOut people out there, I propose a new hashtag: