Being resolute is generally considered to be a virtue, and has been lauded as such throughout human history. Valorous last stands, standing up what you believe in, all the things that stories are full of, take this virtue and run with it, and we come to respect those in whom this virtue is vested. There is, however, a fine line between being resolute and being pig-headedly stubborn, and the latter, is most certainly not a virtue.
Arsene Wenger’s tenure at the Arsenal has always danced a delicate dance along that line, but given that the Professor’s many talents do not include ballet, he’s not quite stayed balanced on that line. Ever since 2004, his forays over the line have tended to be quite firmly into the realm of the porcine, most notable among which has been his refusal to change his tactical approach to games. In game after game, we have bemoaned the failure to adjust the formation, change a player, adopt a more defensive approach, even when it’s so clear that something needs to be changed that Blind Harry, the poet from medieval times whose sort-of true stories on the legend of William Wallace eventually became Braveheart, would have seen it while lying piss drunk on the floor in a Scottish inn in the fifteenth century.
Exceptions to the rule have existed, sort of. On some rare occasions, Wenger has set up the team to play differently, for instance that game against Manchester City where Coquelin looked like he was Makelele, or the way Ozil dropped into Midfield in the FA Cup final last season, or – ok, this is not easy. We’ve also seen him reluctantly change formation this season, switching to a back 4 when the 3-4-2-1 wasn’t working. But all of these changes have either been pre-planned, or born out of desperation, and never before the 60th minute (except the switch against United which was necessitated by Mustafi’s injury).
On Wednesday night, however, we were treated to something so new, it still feels like it didn’t happen. We’d lined up in a 4-1-2-3/4-1-4-1 to start with in the second leg of the League Cup semi-final against Chelsea. In the opening minutes, Eden Hazard ran riot through the middle, using the movement of Willian and Pedro to open up space between our two centre-backs, and making us look like my old Shoreditch 5-a-side team which used to lose games 30-3 (all 3 scored by a ringer, of course). When the Belgian tucked the ball away in the back of the net in the seventh minute, it looked like we were in for a long night of Wenger repeating his old trick of not seeing things which everyone else could.
Now the times are a-changing for us Arsenal fans, we know this. Sanchez is gone, and with him the plans that had been made after the relative loosening of the purse strings in 2013. We’ve managed to get an immediate replacement to sort of fill the hole in the team created by his absence. We’ve even got a full delegation in Dortmund readying to break our transfer record for the second time this season to sign a striker who is actually at the peak of his game. We’re not bothering to fix our midfield issues but are instead relying on a player who’s been around for ages but not quite fully trusted – oh wait that’s still the same.
But despite all these changes, I don’t think any of us could have anticipated Wenger seeing what was going wrong, and instructing Elneny to man-mark Hazard even if it meant staying with the centre-backs, while telling Wilshere and Xhaka to also drop deeper (in the first half). And then, even while we were still getting used to this revolutionary new thing, when we came out in the second half, there was Elneny, playing as a third centre-back! But wait, there’s more! Even though he’d dropped into a back 3, he was still pushed up towards the halfway line when we had the ball, acting as a water-carrier and playing the most passes of anyone on the pitch. The moment we lost the ball, however, he was back in position among the centre-backs, watching Hazard and then snuffing out anything he did.
The tactic worked, as it kept Hazard quiet, while not depriving us of the extra man at the base of midfield, allowing us to control the game in the second half, getting the winner through Xhaka. If I may take a moment for a humble brag, the way Elneny played was exactly how I’d suggested we use our middle centre-back as a libero here in September. And while I had suggested that Nacho Monreal might be our best option to play in this role, the alternative I’d suggested was the Egyptian. If only Wenger read my columns sooner. Sigh
It’s good though, that Wenger is more open to being tactically flexible, and is willing to make changes even early on in a game. Even against Crystal Palace, when we got our first win of 2018 in a comfortable 4-1 win on the weekend, the team had been set up very differently, using Elneny as a shield in front of a back 4, thereby allowing the midfield to actually play as a midfield and complement the forward movement of Lacazette, Ozil and Iwobi. The results were immediate – we never really looked like conceding, the number 9 ended his goal drought, Ozil was able to do his thing, and Iwobi looked dangerous too.
This move towards including Elneny in the team should prove useful going forward as well, as it allows us to more easily flit between a back 4 or back 3 while maintaining the ball and also retaining defensive control. We’re going to need that if we want to make our rebuilding process effective, and get the best out of our midfielders.