In truth, prior to the defeat in Dortmund on Tuesday night, Arsenal’s start to the season had been patchy; a team that looked a little like it was just about being sellotaped together, until Borussia’s ruthless dismantling of a dishevelled looking Arsenal side. It’s reasonably obvious to everybody by now that Arsene has tried to tinker a little with last season’s formula and it’s clearly taking some time to synchronise all of the team’s attacking attributes. I’m minded a little of the beginning of the 2012-13 season, when Arsenal struggled to shoehorn Walcott, Giroud, Podolski, Wilshere and Cazorla into a balanced system.
One of his more controversial alterations to the formula this year has been to play Mesut Özil from the wing. (I am always cautious about referring to wide players as playing ‘on the wing’ in Wenger’s sides, as he always affords them a lot of freedom to drift inside. ‘From the wing’ is a more apposite expression I think). So why has the manager taken a £42m playmaker, his most extravagant ever purchase, by some distance, and moved him away from the area where he appears to be most effective?
It’s a question that many of us fans struggle to conjure an answer for and that leads to its own frustrations. Ideally, a journalist would take Wenger to task on this subject in a press conference in an non-confrontational manner – or at least in a manner which Wenger deems to be non-confrontational so that he doesn’t become defensive and fudge the answer too much. He is obviously doing it for a reason beyond trolling us all into an early grave. Lest we forget that Joachim Low made the exact same adjustment to his Germany side in the knockout phases of this summer’s World Cup.
But Özil now has one assist in his last 18 Arsenal appearances, which tells its own story. The manager was correct in his assertion after the Manchester City game that the German is a very subtle player whose qualities can evade your notice in the heat of the moment. I wrote as much to that effect back in January. However, when Wenger decided to hook Özil (and Ramsey, more on whom later) in the 61st minute in Dortmund, it was a tacit acknowledgment that his star turn is in enduring a bout of moon faced ennui.
Özil does have great subtlety and performs worthy actions that escape the eyes of us layman on occasion. But ideally, that barely detectable tidiness ought to be the icing on the cake rather than the upper limits of what he offers. It should be window dressing on top of the more noticeable and decisive elements of his play. My own theory for Wenger shifting Özil into a wider position assumes a stylistic change rather than a systematic one. With Welbeck and Alexis now on board, I think Wenger wants to turn Arsenal into a team that harries and presses opposition defences again.
With energetic figures such as Wilshere and Ramsey hunting in packs behind Welbeck and Alexis, Wenger feels he can do this and Jack Wilshere seemed to suggest as much in an interview with the official website this week. Whilst he’s not the work shy layabout that many would have you believe, it’s fair to say Özil hardly fits the profile of a player that harries centre halves into errors. Wilshere fits this more transitional style in central midfield because he carries the ball so well. After the home match with Bayern Munich back in March, Wenger explained that he kept Özil on when the Gunners went down to ten men because he carries the ball so well for the counter attack.
In fairness, both goals against City had their origins in Arsenal winning the ball high up the pitch. The issue however, is that defensively, this system doesn’t really suit our captain and vice-captain and Mertesacker and Arteta’s lack of mobility is more of an issue. Every player has weaknesses and every good team simply covers those weaknesses as well as they can with a blend of attributes. It’s fair to say Arsenal aren’t doing that at the moment and they look a little lost. Arsenal didn’t win a single tackle in Dortmund’s half on Tuesday evening after all.
It could be that in the long term we become better for this shift. It may be a case of short term pain for long term gain once the new strategy clicks. But it’s difficult to see it happening any time soon. My foremost reason for believing that Arsenal were correct to pass up on Fabregas this summer was due to the unsettling effect I felt it would have on our midfield. To remould the midfield into his preferred style would require another painful transition. With a new striker and a new right back, Arsenal already had some growing pains to endure and I felt trying to re-assimilate Fabregas could lead to three or four of our best midfielders falling by the wayside to accommodate him.
Whilst I would caveat that by saying that I don’t think Fabregas would fit the system we’re currently trying to create either, it does rather look as though we’ve foisted a significant midfield transition upon ourselves anyway. That’s an especially risky decision when you have such a truncated preseason, with only four friendlies and a handful of training sessions to work with most of your squad. Özil is far from the only player failing to hit the heights thus far, with Aaron Ramsey also struggling for form. That said I am less worried about Ramsey because I feel he has some distinct advantages.
For a start, he is one of our fittest players and even when not playing well, he can make things happen in the autumn of a match. Against Everton, his performance was distinctly average but he had enough fuel in the tank to burst past a tiring Toffees defence in the 83rd minute. Against Crystal Palace, he was mentally fresh enough to both stay onside in the area in a pressure situation and to react ahead of the Eagles’ defenders to snatch a stoppage time winner. That Palace goal also reveals another of Ramsey’s great attributes. His freakish psychological strength.
He’s proved it many times before. Most notably in his rehabilitation from a horrific injury. He did not allow his many voluminous detractors to break his spirit as he endured a spell of difficult form in 2012. Even when Aaron’s radar is off and his passing and shooting are wayward, it doesn’t bother him and he keeps trying to make things happen. It’s a significant edge for a top class athlete to have at this level of sport where margins are so small.
Technically speaking, Jens Lehmann wasn’t a world class goalkeeper. He made roughly as many slapstick errors in the Gunners goal as Almunia (Jens wasn’t dropped from the starting XI twice in his short tenure for no reason). The difference was that Lehmann believed he was the best. He wasn’t, but that conviction pushed him 5-10% closer, whilst by comparison, Almunia looked visibly tormented by his every rick. I think Ramsey has a nice mixture of self-belief without a trace of cockiness. I always recognised it in him during his most indifferent form and it’s why I always felt he would succeed.
The issue I think he has at the moment is that it’s difficult to eke the best out of Ramsey and Wilshere whilst they’re playing in the same team because they like to occupy the same spaces. It’s a bit of a “whack a mole” issue, accentuating the strengths of one seems to reduce the other to bouts of mediocrity. Wenger still seems to be trying to chisel out the rough edges of his current team. He might well manage it in the long run, but the Premier League and Champions League are unforgiving laboratories for trial and error when the price of error is so dear. LD.
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