Criticising Arsenal has become a cottage industry over the last 5 years or so. The charge sheet is commonly filled with accusations over missing intangibles. Arsenal lack leadership, Arsenal lack power, grit, determination etc, etc. Not to say some of those criticisms have not been true at times, to varying degrees. Whilst every team needs a good balance of attributes, it also needs players that fit with its identity.
Leicester are a direct team, so they have direct, quick and physical players. Spurs are a hard working team, so they have young, hungry players that can exploit transitions. Whilst Arsenal’s identity is a bit of a muddle this season, broadly speaking, they are a creative, probing team. Yet for too long, they have lacked creative players. This is something I wrote about back in the summer of 2013.
I touched on it a few weeks ago in a piece about Alexis’ indifferent form and two years ago I wrote an article lamenting Arsenal’s lack of wide playmakers since the departure of Robert Pires. A team like Arsenal will often face well organised teams, with heavily manned defences. As such, one creative player is just not enough to chip away at this stubborn coalface. The Invincibles had Bergkamp as its main creative source, with Robert Pires equally capable of providing the spark. (Henry was good for an assist or too, but most of these occurred when the defensive line had already been broken).
Fabregas’ best season in an Arsenal shirt saw him at the hub of a midfield also featuring Tomas Rosicky and Alex Hleb, able supply lines for the creator himself and capable of manipulating defences out of shape. With the departure of Fabregas and Nasri in 2011, Arsenal were left to rely on Alex Song as their prime visionary, allied with the scarily prolific Robin van Persie, a striker capable of feasting on the crumbs that fall off of the table (Gervinho).
In 2012-13, a front three of Podolski, Walcott and Giroud lacked any kind of creative impetus, leaving Santi Cazorla to feed three hungry mouths with little assistance. Arsenal responded by signing one of the world’s great creators in Mesut Özil, moving Cazorla into the wide playmaker role and they looked more fluid. Until they lost Walcott and Ramsey to injury and Giroud to one of his periodic bouts of ennui, leaving the conjurors with nobody to create for.
As I said earlier in the piece, a good team needs a good balance of attributes. Over the last two seasons, a handful of fringe players have been airlifted into the Arsenal team and had an immediate impact. Most notably, Francis Coquelin and Joel Campbell. The ability of a fringe or youth player to immediately settle into a team is greatly enhanced if he offers qualities that a team is missing. Coquelin added grit, Campbell a precision in possession and an eye for a pass.
Though it’s still far too early to hail him as the panacea to all of Arsenal’s ills, Alex Iwobi looks to be settling quickly for a similar reason. He has given the team something it has been missing for some time. The fact that players such as Campbell and Iwobi have been able to make an impact amplifies my impression that they have lacked a true wide playmaker for too long. Probably since Fabregas and Nasri were providing the bullets for van Persie and Walcott (with Arshavin on the bench) at the back end of the 2010-11 season.
The likes of Walcott, Chamberlain and Ramsey have been populating these areas during this campaign and they have a combined total of 7 assists in all competitions. Recent through balls for Joel Campbell (v Swansea) and Danny Welbeck (v Everton) show that Alexis has creative juices, but he needs a moving target (sorry, Olivier!) With Cazorla and Özil in the same midfield, Arsenal can get by in a creative sense.
The problem is that two of their most prominent back-ups are Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky, leaving the squad with a severe creative deficit. Iwobi has made an immediate impact because he moves the ball and himself quickly, he has a “turn and face” take on style so lacking in Arsenal’s other options. Married with Welbeck and Alexis at Goodison on Saturday, Arsenal’s front line was at optimal fluidity. All three players were quick, strong and capable of changing positions. Iwobi added probing intent to the equation. (He is adding precisely what many of us hoped that Chamberlain would provide).
Alexis started nominally on the right hand side, but moved into central positions with much greater frequency than when Giroud is playing. During Theo Walcott’s stint upfront in the early autumn, we saw Alexis take up much more central positions and his goalscoring form spiked. Iwobi started from the left, but his goal saw him appear first in a central position in his own half, before making an eye catching run into the right channel. His education as a striker or false 9 in the U-21s served him well in this scenario, with a perceptive run and cool finish.
Last month, @poznaninmypants wrote a piece pondering whether the return of Coquelin and Welbeck could aid Arsenal’s pressing game. With a front 3 of Iwobi, Alexis and Welbeck, backed up by a midfield combo of Coquelin and Elnenny, the Gunners suddenly have an injection of energy. These are potentially players that can press and then move the ball quickly if they manage to regain possession high up the pitch. Whilst Borussia Dortmund manager, Jurgen Klopp once said that the gegenpress was his most creative player.
That players as untested as Iwobi and Campbell, with full respect to both, have been able to make such an impact on the team illustrates the extent to which Arsenal have been lacking a secondary creative force. Fabregas, then Cazorla and then Özil have too often been left to riff alone without a solid rhythm section. Iwobi’s progress to this point has been very pleasing, but it ought to convince the manager to apply a more creative varnish to his squad this summer.
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