Familiar faces in unfamiliar places

Back in March, I wrote a piece suggesting that whether or not you wanted Arsene Wenger to leave was more a question of whether you were bored of the journey as opposed to the destination. After eighteen years with the same partner, the flaws that you once either didn’t notice, didn’t mind or maybe even found attractive, begin to grate. The wife in the other bed begins to take on a more pleasing form in your mind’s eye.

Because let’s face it, Arsene Wenger isn’t the only manager that has suffered a slightly underwhelming start to the season. The likes of Roberto Martinez, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino, Brendan Rodgers, Louis van Gaal and Manuel Pellegrini have endued many a restless night. As if to prove that justice is a rare pleasure, Jose Mourinho is pretty much the only manager in the top flight sleeping peacefully in his bed.

Whilst I think Chelsea are likely to win the league, it’s too early to declare it a foregone conclusion. In 2011-12, Manchester City took 38 of the first 42 points available to them and required a last gasp, goal difference title win. They certainly didn’t walk it. Almost exactly six months ago Arsenal were parading a trophy around Wembley stadium and casting a monkey from their backs. Much can change in six months.

Now the mood seems to verge on mass suicide once again, which to my mind shows that the domestic trophies never genuinely formed part of the tapestry of issues many had with the manager. I think the ire towards him is irreversible now unless Arsenal win the Premier League or the Champions League and I just don’t think there’s a manager in the world that could realistically win Arsenal the former. (The latter is slightly different because it’s a knockout competition. Roberto di Matteo could tell you that). @arsereview covers that point off nicely in his sober analysis of this season’s shortcomings.

Wenger is getting a tougher ride than some of the other managers and, largely, it’s to do with length of service. People are just sick of him. This frustration leads to exaggerations over his competence. He is clearly not inept, or stupid, or “clueless” as some suggest, otherwise Arsenal wouldn’t finish about par where they should every single season. He is, at worst, consistently competent but demonstrates familiar weaknesses and there is little indication that he can lead us to overachieve by overhauling City and Chelsea.

But of course familiarity lies at the root of frustration for less superficial reasons too. The similarity and repetition of errors causes no small amount of irritation, like a tongue thrusting itself relentlessly into a mouth wound. Most had the impression once the transfer window closed that Arsenal’s squad was undermanned defensively. Injuries to Laurent Koscielny and Mathieu Debuchy have seen those chickens come home to roost.

You get the impression young Calum Chambers could do with a game or two out of the spotlight to analyse his game, but at the moment, we cannot afford him that liberty due to a lack of personnel. Even if we did have someone to replace him with, they would still be an unfamiliar entity compared to last season’s back four. That said, to focus solely on the defence is wrong I think. The team has struggled for chemistry for most of the season and there are a number of reasons for this. Arsenal are accommodating two new strikers into their forward line for a start, as well as fielding two new defenders in the back four.

A fortnight ago, I wrote about Alexis Sanchez’s improving pass completion rates. Against Anderlecht his completion rate regressed to 73% and against Swansea it was 71%. Not to blame Alexis for Arsenal’s poor results in those two games you understand (far from it), but there is a pretty good correlation between his passing stats and the team’s results. When the Chilean is more considered in possession, Arsenal tend to win – largely due to his brilliance. When he’s erratic, the collective tremor is felt.

Possession is important to a team like Arsenal and this is where Özil is missed, because he can create chances without surrendering possession cheaply. If you take care of the ball, you don’t get counter attacked, even if those behind you are leaving holes that ought to be plugged. In this respect, we have missed Mikel Arteta too. I often feel our organisation isn’t quite as meticulous in his absence. As if to illustrate the point, his latest injury occurred with Arsenal 3-0 up and cruising against Anderlecht.

In midfield, Arsenal have missed Özil and Arteta, two of the main pivots of their possession based game. Alexis is meant to be the devil in the detail, with Arteta and Özil balancing out his occasionally profligate tendencies with a more considered style. Aaron Ramsey too has been in and out of the team, which is probably a contributory factor towards his indifferent form. The midfield hasn’t been able to settle. A good team is balanced with a mixture of attributes, so that one player mitigates the weaknesses of his teammate.

I think some of the manager’s critics become too fixated with players in particular positions. The only respite Özil’s injury has offered is a hiatus in the debate as to his deployment on the left. However, there is a little anxiety over the deployment of Monreal as a centre half, but I think the Spaniard has possibly been our least culpable player in the back four. Had we been told Monreal was a centre half on the day that we signed him and he turned in the exact same performances, I’ve the suspicion that the scrutiny would be less.

The Invincibles back four was made up of two converted midfielders and a converted left winger. Sol Campbell’s first ten or so games for Tottenham were at centre forward, until he was moved into the back four, whereupon his then teammate Jurgen Klinsmann predicted he would become “the finest right back in the world.” Peter Storey, Frank McLintock, Bob McNab, George Graham and Ray Kennedy were all moved from their ‘natural’ positions in the 1970-71 double team; which was arguably the most balanced in the club’s history.

Mikel Arteta’s status as a ‘DM’ is often disputed because most of us saw him play regularly in the number 8 role for Everton, so for many, it’s difficult to readjust our perceptions. Whereas we have no such misgivings about Emmanuel Petit, a centre half when we signed him from Monaco, or Gilberto Silva, who spent 50% of his career as a central defender in his spells at Atlético Mineiro (twice) and Grêmio. As I said earlier in the piece, familiarity shapes perception.

The issue for Arsenal I believe is not so much personnel (or lack thereof) at the back, but the fact that the team isn’t organised well enough to defend. You only have to look at the ragtag back four that ground out ten consecutive clean sheets in the 2006 Champions League to understand that. Mathieu Flamini was only stationed at left back once outside of the confines of that run and played horribly in a 2-1 defeat at Fulham. The careers of Emmanuel Eboue and Philippe Senderos fizzled out and one suspects Kolo Toure was never quite the same without Sol Campbell alongside him.

They weren’t even great defenders. The difference was that the team was organised to protect them. Wenger had set about trying to rectify that this season by pairing Flamini and Arteta together in the Arsenal engine room, until injury to the captain curtailed that solution. For my money, I think Arsenal ought to revert to last season’s ‘rope a dope’ defensive style of sitting deep in numbers to absorb pressure before hitting opponents with well-timed attacks.

At least until the manager has more of the players available to him to play the more attacking style he truly wants to play. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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