Where are we now – part 2

In part 1 of my Arsenal half term report, I ran the rule over the goalkeepers and defence. In part 2 I will whip out a scalpel and have a good old root around in the intestines of Arsenal’s midfield and attack. As an aperitif, this piece from July runs the rule over what I felt Arsenal needed in these areas ahead of the season.

MIDFIELD

Another area of the pitch that has had its rhythm disrupted by injury. However, Arsenal have diminished the impact of their perpetual injury crisis by having plenty of depth in this area. Were Tomas Rosicky to re-brand himself as a centre half, he would probably be in the red zone now, as opposed to kicking his heels on the bench. Last season’s tried and trusted trio of Arteta, Ramsey and Özil have become battle wounded ships in the night. Partially, this is due to all three grappling with their own injury demons.

But the manager has also tried to slightly alter the dynamic this season by chiselling Jack Wilshere into the picture. Arsenal were the 7th most creative team in last season’s Premier League. 6 teams created more goalscoring opportunities and this simply had to change, hence the presence of Wilshere, who offers another dynamic and plenty of forward thrust. The problem has been a lack of chemistry between Wilshere and Ramsey, as both players like to take up similar positions, albeit for different purposes.

Ramsey’s injury problems have meant that that partnership has been broken up and reformed more times than a 90s boyband, which has hardly helped the two forge an understanding. It’s a little unfair to single Jack out because it’s not his fault especially, but the respective form of Ramsey and Cazorla has notably improved since Wilshere’s ankle knack against Manchester United. In order to accommodate Wilshere, Özil has also been moved to the left, the merits of which have been debated to death.

Özil tends to drift towards the flanks rather intelligently anyway and he began to form a valuable understanding with Santi Cazorla at the end of last season. But for the German, moving from outside to in, as opposed to drifting wide from centre, has required a little recalibration. This in a summer in which Özil went the distance with his country at the World Cup, which possibly accounts for his injury layoff too. And let’s face it, he wasn’t playing particularly well prior to injury either. Robbed of both the German and captain Mikel Arteta, Arsenal’s economy in possession has been unduly altered.

It’s hard to imagine Arsenal suffering on the counter attack quite as much as they have with Arteta and Özil minding the ball. As Pep Guardiola would no doubt tell you, if the other team don’t have the ball, they cannot hurt you. Arteta and Özil are particularly missed as they are needed to counteract Alexis’ occasional profligacy in possession. Whilst I think most would agree that a screening midfielder ought to be near the top of Arsene’s shopping list, Mikel Arteta is still a very important player for Arsenal. It is possible to acknowledge that and want an upgrade; the two strands of thought are not mutually exclusive. That said the Spaniard has really struggled for fitness this season, which has to be a concern given his age.

Trialling the 4-1-4-1 formation on the back of a truncated pre-season may have been a questionable call from the manager and once Ramsey, Wilshere, Arteta and Özil are all fit (ha!) it will be interesting to see if he revisits the experiment and, if he does, what effect that might have. Cazorla for instance has relished his move back into the centre of midfield. Alongside Ramsey his effectiveness is increased. Cazorla likes to drop deep to collect the ball, which sometimes neuters his influence as a number 10.

However, given Ramsey’s desire to make forward runs, Cazorla and Ramsey can swap positions so that when the Spaniard drops deep, Ramsey can move into advanced positions and expect Santi to spread the play with his laser guided long passing. It’s the sort of chemistry one hopes Wilshere and Ramsey will develop. When Özil and Wilshere return, the manager has a (potentially nice) problem of how to make all of the pieces fit again. Arsenal have been creating more chances this season, which will please the manager. The jury will continue to deliberate over whether the midfield is any more coherent or defensively any better organised. But one thing is for certain, there will be a verdict come May.

FORWARDS

It’s tempting to scribble ‘I ❤ Alexis Sanchez’ repeatedly in this space. With 14 goals in 20 starts, the hot-pant clad Chilean has shot an arrow into the hearts of the Arsenal faithful and given us a sprinkling of star quality. His goals have masked the shortfall provided by Olivier Giroud’s injury and fallow spells for Cazorla and Ramsey and with Özil’s creativity also lacking due to injury. The question for when Özil returns is whether Cazorla moves back to the left of the front 3, whether Özil stays out there, or whether Arsenal persist with the promising looking front 3 of Alexis, Welbeck and Giroud.

The latter three have shown nascent signs of understanding in their limited outings together. There’s a good physical presence in the three which helps against heavily manned defences. Whilst the signing of Welbeck allayed the loss of Giroud in a physical sense, we missed the Frenchman’s role as a ‘pivot.’ With Welbeck and Alexis buzzing around him, all three have the skillset to bump passes off around the edge of the area. With Theo Walcott still to return, the manager has a real conundrum on his hands.

Meanwhile, behind Alexis, I think Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been the success story of Arsenal’s season. Ox has featured in more games than any other Arsenal player. He gives our front 3 (and our central midfield when called upon) a fascinating variety. He possesses both the high technical level required of an Arsenal midfielder and the physique to power past packed defences. He is just as likely to use his upper body strength to bulldoze a defender as beguile him with a cute change of feet.

The key change in the forward areas compared to last season is that Arsenal have a lot more physical power to bully their way into scoring positions. This is one of the reasons Lukas Podolski has found minutes so difficult to come by. Podolski is virtually faultless when put clean through on a goalkeeper, but he doesn’t do enough to help the team get into those advanced positions. In short, with Podolski in the side, Podolski is more likely to score, but Arsenal are not. He takes chances but he does little to make them, so the net result is negative.

Back in May, when assessing where his team had fallen short of the league title, the manager offered, “Manchester City scored 100 goals so you have to say their offensive potential has been absolutely brutal and fantastic, Liverpool as well. We have scored 66 at the moment, that is where we have room for improvement.” The additions of Welbeck and especially Alexis, as well as the improvement in Chamberlain have increased Arsenal’s offensive potential so that they are not so reliant on a single goalscorer as they were last season in Ramsey.

That said, profligacy has been a big issue for Arsenal this season. Arsenal had 24 shots against Leicester City, 16 against Spurs, 25 against Hull City, 23 against Manchester United, 17 against West Brom and 19 against Southampton. Only in the game against Hull City did we score more than one and it took until stoppage time to net a second. This is due to a mixture of Arsenal not being clinical enough and not taking calm decisions in the final third.

Nobody has shot from outside of the penalty area more than Arsenal this season, but only Özil (v Aston Villa) and Giroud (v Manchester United) have scored from outside of the area. I think this is largely due to a lack of familiarity upfront. It’s easy to forget that most of Arsenal’s attack has been at the club for less than two and a half years. In Alexis and Welbeck, two of our three forwards joined this summer. The front 3 is the most exciting element of Arsenal’s team, how Wenger moulds the midfield clay behind them is the more pertinent question for the remainder of the season. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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