Happenstance is a significant, yet uncelebrated part of football’s rich tapestry. After 30 years of a fair to middling managerial career (in elite terms), Claudio Ranieri has not all of a sudden become the greatest coach in world football. A lot of happy accidents have contributed to Leicester’s implausible ascent to the top of the Premier League. That’s not to diminish his team’s quite phenomenal feats this season.
Ranieri deserves full credit for recognising and enhancing the strengths of the squad that he inherited. But he didn’t suddenly unearth hitherto undiscovered powers. In the current climate, expounding on the strengths of Arsene Wenger is like waving a sprinkler at a raging bush fire. (Worry not, there follows plenty of griping about his weaknesses). But I do believe that one of his greatest attributes is that he embraces football’s chaos.
He creates an environment which is accommodating to the whims of form and fortune. So players like Mathieu Flamini v2008 and Francis Coquelin and a young Ashley Cole can emerge from the shadows to assume centre stage in no time at all. Philippe Auclair describes Wenger as “a jazzer”, someone that is given to improvisation. Last season saw the manager play the full pentatonic scale. Coquelin and Cazorla as a midfield double pivot, Aaron Ramsey on the right, Theo Walcott fulfilling his destiny as a centre forward. Ospina in goal, 18 year old Hector Bellerin as first choice right back.
With his full backing band available at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, the great conductor could not quite work out how to get everybody singing from the same hymnsheet. The annual injury crisis forced Wenger into something of a corner and he stumbled upon some combinations which, more or less, worked. Certainly well enough for Arsenal to finish the season strongly and bag another F.A. Cup win at Wembley.
I’m entirely speculating of course, but I wonder if the manager was overly emboldened by this act of tactical improv. Because, as @michaelkeshani writes here, it’s difficult to follow what the plan was for this squad, tactically speaking. For instance, at this moment in time, with everybody fit (!), who is Arsenal’s first choice right winger? Arsenal began the season with Chamberlain on the right, Cazorla on the left and Ramsey partnering Coquelin in the middle.
The opening day defeat to West Ham and the return of Alexis convinced Arsene to shift the pieces around again, as he moved Ramsey back to the right, Cazorla back into the middle and Chamberlain returned to the bench. Wenger was convinced to shelve his original plan very quickly. Who did he believe was going to play on the right hand side for the majority of the season? Chamberlain? Who, even on form, is a similar type of player to Alexis?
Ramsey, who doesn’t want to play there? Surely if you want a technical counterbalance for the right hand side, you buy a specialist rather than shoehorning Ramsey into a role he plays with some reluctance? Theo Walcott spent the last three months of the 2014-15 season either as an unused substitute or as a striker. Welbeck was injured and you would need to go a long way to convince me that Joel Campbell was part of the manager’s masterplan last summer. Every single option for the position is pregnant with caveats and question marks. So what was the plan?
It was a similar story at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, where Alexis Sanchez started his Arsenal career as a centre forward- an experiment that was curtailed after around two and a half games. I would speculate that Wenger’s estimation of his best XI features Coquelin and Cazorla anchoring the midfield, with Ramsey on the right hand side. The problem is that there are a lack of direct replacements in the second string to replicate that system.
None of the current options can mirror the dual role Ramsey plays from the right, as supporting cast for the front line and midfield axis. In fairness, there are probably three players that remotely share Cazorla’s ability to move with and / or pass the football in the centre of the pitch. The problem is that their names are Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere. Good players, but each about as reliable as an election promise in fitness terms.
So Arsenal are left with a scenario where the removal of one or two players leaves them desperately trying to mash square pegs into round holes. Unfortunately, this season, it doesn’t look like Arsene is going to be able to sax solo his way out of trouble. Whilst it is beneficial to create an environment where unexpected solutions are allowed come to the fore, it should not really be your foremost buttress. The ability to tactically improvise is a good servant, but a bad master in squad building terms.
There is very little about Arsenal this season that has appeared thought out or organised. They have performed better in the games against ‘bigger’ opponents and this seems to be a symptom of preparation. Arsenal formulate a specific, tailored game plan and the players are committed to its execution. Leicester and Tottenham are currently overperforming due to their work rate and organisation. Manchester City and Arsenal’s floundering seasons are due, in part, to a distinct lack of either.
For Arsenal, too often opposition goals are wallpapered by a distant flock of red shirts on the horizon, limply jogging back towards their defence for a better view of the unfolding attack. This kind of collective narcolepsy happens far less when Arsenal play one the teams deemed worthy of prepared tactical rigour. The new reality of the Premier League has seen the quality of teams compress. Pretty much every team has players that can hurt you and, as such, their attributes deserve greater examination than once they did.
Newly promoted Watford can come to the Emirates and play two strikers, for instance. If my speculation is incorrect and Arsenal are preparing for all matches with forensic fastidiousness, it begs the question as to why the players are not executing instructions. In fairness, confidence seems to be a big issue for the team’s recent travails. They tend to start games reasonably enough, until they concede a goal, at which point panic permeates the entire operation.
Yet it’s difficult to entirely dismiss the current lean spell as ‘form.’ Because poor performances comfortably outnumber impressive ones this season, a theme that has been commonplace since August. Arsenal have a very good collection of players for the most part and when coaxed into some semblance of organisation, they have shown that they can perform at a high level.
But against so called ‘lower’ teams, they revert to an antiquated style of possession play that most teams are entirely conversant with nowadays. As @jcav90 scathingly observes, Arsenal become ‘yesterday’s men playing yesterday’s football.’
Scratching the surface of the Arsenal squad, it doesn’t look particularly well-constructed. It’s difficult to decipher what the style of play is. As we move towards Easter, I am struggling to decode what the plan was back in August and what it might be for the next six weeks. Arsene the “jazzer” hasn’t been able to create a coherent orchestra and consequently, the season has been soundtracked by a procession of bum notes.
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