Arsène Wenger’s latest grand plan of converting his winger into a striker failed to get off to the best starts on Saturday. Lukas Podolski, wearing number 9 for Arsenal, has played much of his early career and for FC Koln last season as the second-striker (in between an unsuccessful stint at Bayern Munich), but it’s his reinvention as a goalscoring wide man for Germany (44 goals in 100 appearances) which has gained him the most distinction.
However, Wenger feels that Podolski has the spontaneity and individualism to replace Robin van Persie as the main striker and against Sunderland, his debut initially looked promising. His movement laterally was good but eventually, in the simmering heat, his endeavour turned to toil and later frustration as Arsenal failed to breach Sunderland’s defence in a goalless draw at the Emirates. It didn’t get much better for his replacement, Olivier Giroud, who missed perhaps the easiest chance of the afternoon, skewing a late chance wide.
Wenger concedes that there is a lot of work for Podolski to do, saying that he needs to “change his game, make runs in behind and to protect the ball and move around the box.” The signs are that Wenger will persist with Podolski and hopes that he learns the position on the job but he will need to improve quickly if he is to replicate or better Van Persie’s impact last season.
Wenger has the other option of using Podolski on the left of the 4-3-3 but the issue arises of balance. Because it’s that, he felt, was the key tactical quandary in the draw with Sunderland; that the use of three strikers upset the rhythm of Arsenal’s passing game.
In the match, Wenger started Gervinho and Theo Walcott as the two wide players but while the pair featured frequently together last season, this season he sees the two battling together to assume one of the starting places in the front three. That’s because the tactics have changed this season with emphasised placed back on a technical style after last year’s attempts to use the flanks more via the “three striker system”.
Wenger might have felt that was a good idea because he envisaged Cesc Fabregas staying and having the world’s best through-passer delivering killer balls to meet the forwards’ runs. But, as he found out towards the end of the season, playing three direct forwards only placed more responsibility to create centrally and especially, that meant Alex Song had to come to the fore.
This season, the idea is to include at least one creative player on the flanks in the hope to give plurality to Arsenal’s chance creation. But against Sunderland, everything was once again created from a central source, chiefly from Santi Cazorla who made seven chances – a third of Arsenal’s total. “In some games it works, in some not,” said Wenger. “We went for a different formula last year and the balance is not always right, but in this game today we needed maybe one more creative player to be a bit more accurate in the final third. There was not a lot of space left to our strikers; everything had to be created from our midfield.”
Santi Cazorla was superb, finding openings and linking play and he was especially never too far away from Mikel Arteta as the pair combined the most times in the match (29 times). He was given freedom to roam although he might have found using three strikers inhibited his impact somewhat. In the first-half, his natural instincts were to drift laterally in a fairly new role as the playmaker but found the static movement of Gervinho and Walcott not exactly conducive to pass-and-move. They did, however, create space for him by stretching the play.
Cazorla might have been better off dropping deep instead and allowing Abou Diaby to push up as he demonstrated in pre-season to try and penetrate Sunderland’s shape. Certainly, the wingers were unable to do that as they found space a premium to run into. Of course, it wasn’t entirely their fault; Gervinho had a lively game, running at defenders (which, at 20 times, it’s the most dribbles one player has attempted in a game since Cristiano Ronaldo six years ago). But often he found two or three defenders breathing around his neck or simply just run out of space on the pitch. He was often forced to go alone too because Wenger (or might it have been the Steve Bould effect?) instructed his full-backs to play more cautiously after a couple of early warning signs that Sunderland might punish on the break and as such, rarely offered the overlap.
The other issue was that the hastily assembled team simply didn’t pass it quick enough to move Sunderland’s defence out of position. Having another creative player in there would have helped (and it’s become increasingly one of the most important positions on the pitch). Podolski’s quick give-and-goes present him as a compromise alternative but Song’s impending departure meant that Cazorla – who might have started wide – was required centrally.
So here we are; after one match of the new season, new signings, the Emirates still served up a typical Arsenal. But it’s this sort of encounter that Arsenal must find solutions for and it seems Arsène Wenger’s answer to improve Arsenal’s attacking play is not to find a Plan B; or necessarily more variety. But as a possession side, it’s to improve what they are best at. Which seems a logical move. Because it’s as Athletic Bilboa coach, Marcelo Bielsa, says; “attacking football has nuances” and it’s controlling and understanding those nuances which might make Arsenal better.