To an extent, I can understand why Arsene Wenger must hate us Arsenal fans. Over the last couple of months, we’ve grumbled about how the back 3 wasn’t working, and why we needed to switch back to a 4 man defence. Over the last few games, we’ve gone back to the old 4-2-3-1, and in the previous games, as we’ve struggled to score and limped to a couple of draws and couple of 1-0 wins, we’ve grumbled about how things still haven’t got better. Although we showed against Liverpool on Friday night that we can score, in that devastating 5 minute spell, we’re now going to grumble again about our formation and what more needs to be done.
You could almost forgive him for wanting nothing to do with us and our constant carping. But only almost.
Because there remain serious problems with this team, no matter which formation he plays, and with his team selection, in the formation he does.
Let’s begin with the problems with the team. I’m not the first to be saying this and I’ve said it before as well, but it still needs to be said: where is the Arsenal identity? In the first Wenger phase, when the trophies piled up at Highbury, it was that distinctive counter-attacking game, built on the foundations of two solid Central midfielders, one devastatingly quick right winger who’d go wide on the outside, one technically gifted (and quick) left winger who’d come inside to link play, the genius of Dennis Bergkamp, and a fast and brilliant striker up front. Even when the first-choice team wasn’t fully available, the team knew how they had to play, they knew how they would set up, they knew that there were back-up players for each position.
In the Emirates years, even though the trophies dried up, we had the Passing triangles and soft-shoed possession game that was built around Fabregas and other technical players like Hleb, Nasri, etc. It wasn’t always successful, and it wasn’t the most effective when the Spaniard wasn’t playing, but it was still distinct, and again, our players knew their system, knew what they were doing.
Now, that identity doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter what formation we play, we have no distinct plan for most phases of play. It’s only when we reach the final third that Ozil, Sanchez, Lacazette, (if used) Giroud and (if fit) Ramsey, try the one-twos and quick passing to get around a defence. The approach play is just made up as we go along, and therefore has no thrust, no purpose, and also means that it has little effectiveness. The aimless passing between the defenders and central midfielders, with little to no off-the-ball movement to create a passing option, is stultifying and makes it incredibly easy for teams to press us high up the pitch.
Which leads us to conceding goals on the counter, and because of silly individual mistakes, regardless of the formation. And all these issues are embodied most clearly in one person – Granit Xhaka. Which leads us to the next big problem with Arsenal – our team selection. Or more accurately, Wenger’s team selection.
Xhaka is the archetype of this new Wenger era. He’s not a midfield destroyer and he’s not a passing metronome. He’s not great at scoring or creating goals, but gets the odd assist and extremely lucky goal when he pushes forward, without doing anything particularly great in attack, and then gets pulled out of position. He never seems to know when to stick or twist, and almost never seems to be in perfect position. When he and Ramsey have been more positionally disciplined, such as in the Tottenham game, I’ve noted that and how it was crucial to us doing well. But the fact that I’m having to praise basic positional discipline in a central midfielder, where position is key, tells the whole story.
On Friday, we started the game quite brightly, but every time we lost the ball, there was a gaping hole in front of our defence and acres of space for Liverpool’s Fab Four to frolic in. As the first half went on, these constant gaps yielded chance after chance for Klopp’s side, and with each chance, our attacking vigour was snapped as worry and nervousness crept in and by the half hour mark we had more possession but we only had it to lose it, it seemed. All three goals came about after we lost the ball, a Liverpool player received a pass in a place where he really should have had to contend with a defender or covering midfielder, and was then able to fashion an opportunity. Similar to the City game, funnily enough, the 3 goals they did score weren’t actually from the best of chances. The first arose because of a deflection off Koscielny, the second was deflected off Mustafi who was in Cech’s line of sight, and the third was a terrible blunder by the former Chelsea man.
Cech could perhaps have done better for the second and third goals, but even if those hadn’t gone in, there were still too many opportunities for Liverpool to score. We also got lucky for our second goal, with Mignolet making a complete meal of the Switzerland international’s speculative shot – it wasn’t even to one side, but straight down the middle at the Belgian keeper, so we really shouldn’t get too excited about it. We can and we should about the third goal, which came about because of excellent interplay from midfield and attack, culminating in Lacazette’s deft backheel and Ozil’s delicate finish.
But the midfield was still a problem, and we continued to be vulnerable, and of course conceded a third. The fact of the matter is that Xhaka is too much of a liability in central midfield. And we have to concede defeat over him, acknowledge that he isn’t going to the central midfield solution we hoped he would be. Yes, he adds a bit more passing ability when Ramsey is fit, but when Wilshere is fit and playing as he has been, a more solid defensive midfielder is required. We saw how well Coquelin dovetailed with Cazorla when the Spaniard played as a ball-playing defensive midfielder, and Wilshere could do with a more solid defensive support, whether from Coquelin, Elneny or even Maitland-Niles who is strong and quick and reads the game quite well.
Will Wenger listen though? We can only hope.