I have long suspected that choice is one of Arsene’s great enemies. Squad rotation is not something he has ever shown a particular flair for. I have always thought of him as more of an alchemist than a strategist. Given a low number of options, he is able to forge cohesive teams from scarce materials. His players have let us peer behind the curtain over the years and revealed some fascinating aspects of Wenger’s personality.
Ray Parlour spins a good yarn about Arsene spilling his desert in the club canteen and not noticing until he got back to his table when he began to poke at an empty plate with his fork. He is a man that thinks very deeply and sometimes that can aid indecisiveness. He rarely seems to plan his squad incomings meticulously- see his ongoing confusion as to the type of player he has bought in Granit Xhaka. From the outside it often appears that he buys players without a cogent plan in how to use them.
Podolski was, by Wenger’s own admission, signed as a centre forward. Yet he rarely ever actually played there. Alexis’ first three games in an Arsenal shirt saw him play a central striking role, before he was shifted to the right, then the left, before being given another chance upfront this season. Sometimes he seems to hoard players that he likes and then works out how to use them later. This can be a strength and gives him great flexibility, but sometimes the lack of clarity seems to gild the lily of his squad.
Occasionally, this filters through into his team selections. Arsene places a lot of stock in the human side of management and, again, it is important to articulate that this is probably a great strength. One can only speculate, but it is likely that he gets a response from a lot of his players by treating them well as human beings. It is one of those intangible aspects of his management that attracts opprobrium after bad results, but is never considered a contributory factor to good ones.
That said, I think sometimes his loyalty to individuals spills over and confuses the collective. Gabriel has been performing reasonably well recently, whilst Olivier Giroud has hit a rich vein of goalscoring form. From the outside, it appears that Arsene can feel obligated to reward individuals with games, even if the overall team chemistry suffers as a result. On Saturday, he selected a weakened team against Southampton at St. Mary’s.
Yet the eleven turned in a performance greater than the sum of its parts, because there was an obvious identity, which promotes chemistry. With the likes of Welbeck, Walcott, Rene Adelaide and Chamberlain combining, knitted together by Lucas Perez’s impressive play as a false 9, Arsenal had a very clear personality based on mobility and interchangeability. A good team is a team that is well balanced with a good variety of attributes, but ultimately has a detectable modus operandi.
With Alexis Sanchez playing as a false 9, Arsenal had begun to develop a coherent attacking identity. Flanked by the creative, Rosicky like zip of Iwobi and the penetrative running of Theo Walcott, the Gunners found their most balanced attacking combination in some years. The natural attrition of a gruelling season means rotation is necessary and often enforced. With Walcott and Özil unavailable over Christmas, Olivier Giroud was welcomed in from the cold and scored some vital goals.
I maintain the impression that the Frenchman is best deployed from the bench, but it was understandable that Giroud was going to have to come in for some games. The issue then became that Arsene found it difficult to drop Olivier, even if the team appears to play its best football with a more mobile striker. As such, Arsenal have turned in a number of confused looking, soporific first half displays over the last month.
I think this is because Arsenal’s attacking identity has been muddled again. This is not to hang Olivier Giroud out to dry, you understand. Starting Giroud commits your team to a certain style, but Arsene has seemed reluctant to adopt the tactics that allow the striker to flourish. Only in the final 20 minutes when the situation becomes panicked do the team revert to the sort of service he craves.
Teams that function well do so via a network of symbiotic partnerships. Giroud has a good partnership with Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, who drives to the by-line and also whips crosses in from the touchline. He also has an effective relationship with Lucas Perez, who acts as a very effective foil for the Frenchman. He acts as a kind of second striker to bounce off of Giroud’s clever layoffs and knockdowns- as expertly demonstrated by his wonder strike against Bournemouth. Lucas also takes up good positions in the channels to lash the ball across goal, which is the sort of service Giroud enjoys.
In other words, if you’re going to start Olivier Giroud, you have to commit to his style. That means being direct, putting in crosses and trying to get to the by-line. On Tuesday against Watford, Arsene’s team selection was indecisive. Iwobi and Giroud do not have much of a relationship at all. The Nigerian partners well with mobile front men like Alexis and Welbeck. He is also far more effective from the left, where he is much more comfortable drifting in field and linking play.
Starting Iwobi from the right with Giroud upfront created extra dysfunction in a team that was already forced to operate with a jarring central midfield duo and with a centre half at right back. Playing Giroud whilst the likes of Lucas, Chamberlain and Bellerin sat on the bench just exacerbated the bad chemistry. But it kind of looks like Arsene played Gabriel at right back and Giroud upfront out of a sense of obligation to give them minutes and the team’s approach became scrambled as a result.
This becomes a bigger issue still when you factor in Arsene’s aversion to micro management. The players are left to gather the pieces and form the puzzle themselves. Again, this probably has a lot of invisible benefits that we do not fully realise in the long term. But the manager sometimes makes that job even more difficult for his team when he makes disjointed team selections. There is a certain irony in Wenger making life harder for players he seems to have selected out of a feeling of personal loyalty.
Conte has not done anything groundbreaking at Chelsea. He bought a couple of players with a particular system in mind, he got the buy in of his squad (admittedly, only after a couple of poor early season results) and he has not indulged the players that have not been able to adapt to it. Long time servants such as Mikel, Oscar and Ivanovic have been deemed surplus to requirements, whilst household names like Fabregas and Terry look on from the bench.
That kind of clarity gives players a conviction and belief in the style they are adopting. It provides important future proofing, because the team maintains its belief, even after a bad result. For Arsenal to have any chance of rescuing their feint title hopes at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, they are going to have to have a clear strategy and identity. The manager needs to commit to a certain style.
The team will need complementary partnerships- especially given the forced unfamiliarity of Arsenal’s central midfield; if that means bruising a few egos, so be it. Arsene receives a smorgasbord of critiques throughout any given season, but I pretty sure I am alone in asking him to be a little more stubborn on occasion. But I’m probably not alone in calling for him to be more decisive.
Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto