The book of Arsenal’s injury martyrs is, by now, a well-thumbed document (rumour has it that Abou Diaby picked up a particularly nasty paper cut leafing through his own chapter of woe). It is well acknowledged that, yet again, the optimism of a promising looking season has been pin pricked by the sting of long term absences. We all knew this was the case prior to the match at Hull on Sunday, but with Mesut Özil making the play and Aaron Ramsey prowling the opponent’s penalty area, we were given a stark demonstration of it anyway.
However, I don’t think injuries are the sole factor in Arsenal’s slump since late January. I get the sense that the Gunners have slightly reverted their style since then. After a disastrous and defensively calamitous 2-1 defeat to Spurs last March, Arsenal went back to basics. Several players suggested last season that new assistant Steve Bould likes to conduct shape work with the team. Instead of the high pressing style made voguish by Guardiola’s Barca, he preferred for a team to keep its shape and sit deep.
In fact, I watched Carl Jenkinson say so back in July. With 4th place really on the line, Arsenal reverted to a more conservative, ‘stand offish’ defensive style. It was almost as if Bould had finally won his ideological battle with the manager – admittedly, I’m not privy to the goings on at London Colney, so I have no idea if that is actually the case. Arsenal adopted a style of play that saw them sit deeper and create a solid line for the opposition to try to break through.
The Gunners continued with that style into the new season and a distinct pattern emerged. It wasn’t as swashbuckling as previous Wenger sides (4-1 home victories against Sunderland and Norwich remain our most convincing victories of the season to date), but it was just as effective. Our average possession stats were down 7% on last season by January 1st but we topped the table. As of 2nd February, Arsenal had won 10 of their home games by a 2-0 score line. We haven’t repeated that result in our favour since.
It was eminently noticeable in the shoeings at Anfield and Stamford Bridge that the full backs and midfielders were playing much higher up the pitch. Think Monreal at Anfield and Gibbs at Stamford Bridge and at least four of those eleven goals will flash through your memory. I had originally thought that the reason for this irresponsible adventurousness was due to a psychological flaw. I could not countenance that the players had been instructed to play in this way, given the success of our more stand offish style.
Yet at Hull on Sunday I noticed just how high up the pitch Mertesacker and Koscielny were playing. Hull very nearly picked through us with simple balls over the top on a couple of occasions in the first half. This simply wasn’t happening earlier in the season, when the centre halves were much closer to their goalkeeper and well shielded by Arteta and / or Flamini. The ‘rope a dope’ style has so clearly been discarded for a few months now I feel.
Again, I admit that I could be speculating here, but it almost seems as if Arsene just doesn’t want to play in that more austere style. Almost as if he felt Arsenal could shed their cautious cocoon and chrysalis into a true attacking beast. The problem with this of course is that Arsenal don’t have the best squad in the league anymore and they’re very, very unlikely to in the short term. They can and I believe do have a starting XI that can match anybody, but squad wise we’re always going to be short of City and Chelsea.
If we’re talking about Arsenal winning the league or the Champions League, they have to try and make the small things go their way. This is what Liverpool have done excellently this season. It is possible to commend Liverpool for the way they have played (even without the ‘distraction’ of Europe, I predicted that they’d finish 6th this season) and to suggest that not playing in Europe has helped them.
They’ve a very good starting XI too and they’ve not had to reach much deeper and that familiarity has helped them inculcate a new style of play very quickly. Liverpool have had an advantage but they’ve been canny enough to take it. Arsenal are going to have to accept that for games against top level opponents, they’re going to have to revert to being organised, to soaking up pressure and choosing our moments to attack, as we did so well up until February or so. Low scoring draws at Anfield and Stamford Bridge would have given the table a slightly different look.
Maybe the reason for change, as I perceive it, isn’t entirely ideological on Wenger’s part. It could be that he felt that it wasn’t possible to action a clinical, counter attacking style based on quick transitions without Ramsey and Walcott. Losing our best passer in Özil somewhat compounded this. At Hull on Sunday, that swift, clinical side kicked in again, with Özil starting moves and the waspish Ramsey buzzing around Hull’s penalty area.
Ramsey is a key enabler of this style of play because his energy levels and his multitude of attributes mean he can be behind the ball when the opposition have it, but once it’s back in Arsenal’s possession, he is beyond Olivier Giroud in the blink of an eye, demanding the pass. Rosicky runs a lot and speeds up our play, but he doesn’t cover the same distance. He doesn’t quite burst as far forward. Rosicky is a high octane footballer, but Ramsey is the Tasmanian devil.
If I have framed Wenger’s thinking correctly in this instance, then it neatly surmises his mind-set. He altered the style with his attacking players at the forefront of his psyche, without the same consideration for the defensive guardians of the previously successful strategy. Players such as Arteta and Mertesacker flourish in this slightly more conservative, reserved approach. The same probably goes for Nacho Monreal too. It’s probably no coincidence that none of that triumvirate has played their best football in this spell.
Arsenal have been thrashed against title chasing teams this season and, though it’s a starker occurrence this season, it’s not a new one. Chelsea and Manchester United in particular have comprehensively taken us apart a few times over the years because Arsenal have played too openly. The 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford in August 2011 is the most prominent example of this. Despite missing half of the team through injury and with a back four containing a raw Carl Jenkinson, Johan Djourou and Armand Traore, Arsenal still tried to take United on. Contrary to belief, Wenger isn’t incapable of organising his teams in a more defensive manner. He just seems reluctant at times.
In September 2003, on the back of a chastening 3-0 home defeat to Inter, Wenger dropped Pires and Wiltord in favour of the more industrious duo of Parlour and Ljungberg on the flanks for the trip to Old Trafford. After the match Wenger said of the subsequent 0-0 draw, “No one wanted to take the risks needed to score. We felt like that in particular. It was a great result after losing 3-0 because we had to make sure that we didn’t go into a crisis of confidence.”
Whether it appeals to the manager’s tastes or not, if Arsenal are to seriously contest the two big trophies, they are going to have to be prepared to go safety first once in a while. Though it was undoubtedly less sparkling than the team of a decade ago, I happened to really enjoy Arsenal’s more clinical, considered approach that they demonstrated for the majority of 2013. I hope the manager doesn’t consider it as offensive to his habits or somehow unseemly to trust in it on the right occasions. LD.
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