There’s been a slight tactical shift in the way Arsenal have been set up this season, and it may go some way to explain the difficulties Arsenal have experienced. The shift has been from the attacking 4-2-3-1 formation to the more defensive 4-3-3, in order to compensate for the failure to sign a real defensive midfielder who can sit at the base of midfield on his own. It’s a change which has not been picked up on in any great detail, but it’s a key one which the players – particularly the midfielders – are evidently still getting used to.
Setting aside the question of why a younger, tactically astute, specialist defensive midfielder wasn’t signed during the last transfer window (that’s for later), the two currently at the club have huge deficiencies in the role they’ve been asked to carry out: Arteta has had to reinvent himself, and his strength and tackling ability aren’t up to the standard required in that role, while Flamini, although he is clearly willing and was able to do the job, has been ponderous in possession recently and is prone to a yellow card. Both are ageing and need help. The decision to sacrifice the number 10 for an extra body in the middle is understandable in the circumstances, and help Flamini and Arteta in breaking up attacks.
At the beginning of the season, having Wilshere and Ramsey support the defensive midfielder worked reasonably well; both are all-action midfielders who can go from box to box as necessary. Both are strong in the tackle, put themselves around, have good positional awareness (although Wilshere’s still needs improving) and have stamina to run from end to end for the entire 90 minutes. The only thing that needed work was on their communication – one would need to stay back when the other moved forward, they need to anticipate what the other would be doing, and on occasion, would have to curb their own attacking instincts for the balance of the team. At their tender ages, they could be a partnership that could control midfields for years.
That has meant that both have had to sacrifice parts of their game to accommodate their new role. They should not be attacking at the same time, so the team have lost at least one great attacking talent each time they break forward. Ramsey already looks more restrained as he stays back when Wilshere goes forward, while Jack has looked lost while he tries to fill the role of Makelele, Pirlo and Vieira all in the same game. Arguably both have suffered as the team tries to become more solid defensively.
It came out over the course of the summer that Arsene Wenger may have left Arsenal if they hadn’t beaten Hull in the FA Cup final last season. Reports claim that if the team hadn’t overcome the first time finalists, he would have joined Sir Alex Ferguson in the director’s box and left Alan Pardew as the longest serving manager in the Premier League. Without being a doom monger or joining the 'Arsene Out' brigade, one wonders whether he should have given up the hot-seat regardless of the result.
Throughout last season and this, Arsene hasn’t always projected the image of a manager who knows the answer to the team’s problems. There have been quite a few games where the team has looked bereft of ideas and has struggled to find the players to take them to the next level. Through the years, the team has come up against plenty of others who park the bus and let Arsenal pass the ball from side to side. Arsene has consistently talked about having to find a way through these teams, and yet years later the problem is still there with no answer in sight. During games where the team are struggling to get a foothold, he doesn’t always have the expression of “Le Professeur” that he used to have; it’s turned into a much more quizzical look, almost as though he can’t understand why the team aren’t performing to expectations and unable to figure out how to change it. On top of that, he’s started complimenting the team’s attitude and mental strength, without really examining the tactical aspects of the game. Perhaps he does do it behind closed doors – he really should be – but on the outside at least there doesn’t seem to be that much tactical analysis of the game. That is the most worrying sign.
He’s made some questionable signings as well in the last few seasons. While it’s delightful that the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have been brought to the club, the manager has consistently failed to address the obvious gaps in the team – in the transfer window just gone he failed to sign a replacement for Tomas Vermaelen and was reluctant to sign a striker until Yaya Sanogo comprehensively failed to provide a convincing alternative to the injured Olivier Giroud. The only area of the team that has been really strengthened over the last few seasons was the attacking midfield position, with plenty of players brought in to provide alternatives when the inevitable injury crisis hits. For years the team have been screaming out for a Javier Mascherano type defensive midfielder, and yet the only options for an anchor man/defensive midfielder are the ageing duo of Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini, neither of which are showing that they can do what is required of them in that role at the standard expected.
It does look as though the manager has run out of ideas and is struggling to keep up with the managers around him. He’s without a shadow of a doubt the greatest thing that’s ever happened to the club, and I will definitely shed a tear when he does decide to call it a day, however the time is coming where, for the good of the club, he might need to start thinking about who he wants to replace him. Anyone with new and fresh ideas would be an improvement on a man who looks like he doesn’t have the answers anymore.
By Raj Devandran - Arsenal fan -