Balance at Ground Zero

Arsenal’s current injury crisis presents Arsene Wenger with issues of balance, as well as personnel. As I wrote last week, being deprived of your first choice central midfield pairing is pretty far from ideal any way you peel the onion. But it is as much an issue that the remaining bodies in the Arsenal engine room, Flamini and Ramsey, do not really dovetail well. Whilst Ramsey is a fine replacement for Santi Cazorla, he thrives next to a more ‘controlling’ presence.

Of Arsenal’s top 5 passing combinations for the Sunderland game, none involved Mertesacker or Koscielny. This is most rare for Arsenal, whose favoured combinations tend to involve a midfielder picking the ball up from a centre back and building play from there. Bereft of Arteta, Coquelin (who has improved massively in the distribution stakes) or Cazorla, the Gunners did not quite build play in the same way. They also showed a worrying vulnerability to the counter attack that stronger sides might have been better placed to punish.

Last week I suggested that Arsenal’s current front 6 options lack serenity and technical control and this is an equation that Wenger is going to have to wrestle with in the coming weeks. I wonder if, at least until Alexis returns, he might be tempted to revert to the 4-3-3 formation that took Arsenal to the top of the league during the 2013-14 season. Ultimately, that system proved to be overly dependent on individual cogs to work. But for the time being, most of those cogs are present and correct.

Against the Black Cats, Walcott came on as a substitute and played from the right for the first time since February. I believe that this was a rehearsal for the Olympiacos match, where circumstances dictated a more adventurous approach would be required. Yet Theo’s presence on the flank might be seen as a jump cable to replace the missing spark of Alexis Sanchez in the short term. Ideally, the Chilean’s absence offers Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a tantalising chance to make up the pyrotechnic wing of the team.

Yet his performances remain shrouded in ennui. (Football’s discourse is very malleable of course, he’s only a couple of good performances away from being the club’s most exciting English player again). Walcott is, like Alexis and Chamberlain, a high risk / high reward player. However, Theo just seems more likely to reap reward than The Ox at the moment. Whilst it’s true that Walcott missed much of the 2013-14 season with injury, he was still the first choice right sided forward in that system.

Arsenal’s lack of technical security jimmies the window open a little further for Joel Campbell. Whilst I remain a little sceptical about his abilities at the very top level, I think there’s an argument that he provides balance within the confines of the 4-3-3 of two seasons ago. In that campaign, Cazorla played from the left, offering a counterweight to the more rumbustious stylings of Ramsey and Walcott. Joel Campbell is a player that offers the kind of mechanical insurance missing in the other forward options.

Campbell’s end product can be frustrating, but he is a player that Wenger would describe as “technically efficient”, in his purring Gallic tones. He doesn’t waste the ball often. There is also the potential to have Campbell and Walcott swap flanks. In fact, it may even be preferable if the manager wants to keep Bellerin as his lateral style full-back from the right. Campbell and Bellerin seems a defensively safer partnership than Walcott and the Spaniard in tandem. However, with Theo and Joel both looking to move inside, it may lack width and be easy for opponents to smother.

The centre of midfield still has the same pieces as it did in 2013-14. Arteta (when the medical team can reanimate his legs again) / Flamini, with Ramsey and Özil ahead of them. Arsenal may even be able to revert to the deeper defensive style that they deployed within this system two seasons ago. I still think the defence looks more comfortable sitting off and playing “rope a dope” with the opposition. It may stunt Bellerin’s rangy runs from right back, but the Gunners would have to keep the back door closed somehow.

A team featuring Giroud, Walcott, Ramsey, Özil and Campbell certainly seems to have a little more firepower in it. In this guise, it would be Walcott replacing Alexis and Campbell performing a similar function to that which Cazorla has done on the left and Ramsey has on the right, albeit in a slightly different way. Arsenal have a lot of second string players that are perennially injured, such as Wilshere, Arteta, Rosicky and Chamberlain. All of them have been effectively relegated to deputy status by fitness issues.

As a result of their unreliability, as either first or second choice players, third stringers like Flamini and Campbell have become important and we have to find a way to integrate them. Calum Chambers is another member of that third tier that could find opportunities from the latest health crises. The defensive midfield position remains the one that causes the greatest consternation with the current options. Chambers certainly has the qualities that the team really needs in its engine room, which is currently staffed with a few too many Tasmanian devil types.

It would require a mightily swift acclimatisation and realistically, the situation is critical enough for Arsenal to plunge into the market to buy a controlling defensive midfielder. (More so than it already was). The contracts of Arteta and Flamini are close to the wire by now, so we’re hardly in any danger of ending up with unwanted spare parts when everyone else returns to fitness (!) In the long term, Ramsey is going to want to play in central midfield for Arsenal and he’ll need a fitting partner in the short term too.

Given the age of Arteta and Flamini, the club would almost certainly have been scouting targets for a while now and the manager is just going to have to pull the trigger on someone in his cross-hairs. He has form in this regard. I don’t think that Danny Welbeck was a signing that excited Arsene, but it’s one that was completed out of necessity. Six months before he signed Andrei Arshavin, Wenger publicly expressed doubt that the portly Russian had the required fitness levels for the Premier League.

But when Cesc Fabregas’ knee buckled in a challenge with Xabi Alonso in December 2008, with the Gunners in sixth place, he knew he needed to act. I don’t think Arsene ever really had a plan for William Gallas, whose integration into the squad was always tricky, both tactically and emotionally. He was making the best out of a rotten situation with Ashley Cole’s transfer, plugging a gap and trying to save some face, politically speaking. We’ve probably reached a ground zero situation once more and I think Arsene Wenger knows it.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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