Arsenal trailed champions Leicester City by a total of ten points last season, with Per Mertesacker admitting that it was “a miracle” that the Gunners finished as high as second place. So what were the major flaws that impeded the team from mounting a concerted title challenge? What are the key issues that Arsene Wenger will need to fix, via the transfer market or otherwise, as we head towards a new season?
FIND A FUNCTIONING CENTRAL MIDFIELD
To date, the partnership of Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin has proved to be the squad’s most complementary midfield partnership. The recent additions of Mohammed Elneny and Granit Xhaka may well change that. How these players, Xhaka in particular, alter the genome of the midfield could hold the key to Arsenal’s improvement.
Coqzorla were an effective duo, but largely because they amended one another’s weaknesses rather than because they accentuated one another’s strengths. The issue is that both players combined do the work that one top class defensive midfield player should be able to handle independently. Cazorla was required to cover Coquelin’s lack of technical nous and Coquelin modified Santi’s aggression surplus.
Coqzorla was also quite reliant on having Ramsey as a drifting spare part on the right hand side. That takes away some of Arsenal’s attacking threat, with their right sided attacker bogged down in central midfield duty. It looks to me as though Granit Xhaka has been bought to bring Coqzorla’s work into one composite body. The Coquelin-Cazorla axis struggled in matches against disciplined defences, because two players were being occupied for what should have been a one man defensive role, taking precious numbers away from Arsenal’s attack.
At this point, Arsene’s plans for the central midfield are unclear. There is room for a lot of flexibility, because he has just about every type of central midfielder imaginable at his disposal. My guess is that he will look to alter his choices according to the demands of the opposition. But the transition will need to be seamless. Arsenal lost a good portion of that ten point deficit last year trying to accommodate the dysfunctional Ramsey-Flamini partnership. The Gunners cannot afford a repeat of this imperfect midfield matrimony in 2016-17.
SCORE MORE GOALS
Arsenal were the joint fourth top goalscorers last season with West Ham, having been outscored by Manchester City, Spurs and Leicester. They were the third best goalscorers in 2014-15, notching twelve fewer goals than Manchester City. In 2013-14, Arsenal were the league’s fourth best goalscorers, registering 34 fewer goals than Manchester City and 33 fewer than Liverpool. Arsenal define themselves as an attacking side and to achieve their ambitions, they are going to have to convert more of their efforts on goal.
Arsenal consistently outscore Chelsea, but Chelsea are generally a more secure side defensively, they do not leave themselves open as Arsenal do. In the last three years, Arsene has tried forlornly to sign Gonzalo Higuain, Luis Suarez, Demba Ba, Karim Benzema and Jamie Vardy. Back in May, Wenger lamented, “I have said many times we did not score enough goals to win the championship.” It is not a new problem and it is one that the manager has acknowledged publicly on many occasions.
Arsenal’s search for a new striker is well into the realms of odyssey by now. However, the existing squad can make marginal but significant gains in addition to the recruitment of a forward. Maybe the acquisition of Granit Xhaka can liberate Ramsey for those frustrating games at home to defensive opposition. The likes of Walcott, Özil and Chamberlain can pick up some slack too. Whilst Giroud is not the most clinical striker on earth, he unfairly shoulders the burden for the team’s collective profligacy.
To enable better goalscoring statistics, Arsenal need to create a better quality of chance for their attackers. Mesut Özil may be the greatest creator of scoring opportunities on the planet, but a truly great team diversifies its creative presence. Loath as I am to use a once in a lifetime squad like the Invincibles as a yardstick, that team had several players capable of creating chances, as well as scoring them.
Bereft of Cazorla, Wilshere and Rosicky last season, Özil was the team’s lone conjuror and it showed. This is why a decent, but hardly vintage player like Joel Campbell and a promising, yet raw talent like Alex Iwobi looked so accomplished last season. They added a sprinkle of creative diversity to a team low on imagination. Again, I think Arsenal need to import more creativity via the transfer market. I have thought so for some time.
The numbers show you that Arsenal squandered too many chances last season, but I also think that was due, in part, to frenzied build up play. There was often an air of desperation by the time the ball did eventually reach the penalty area that saw the forward snatch at the chance once it arrived. When Danny Welbeck finished a slick passing move at Goodison Park in March, it immediately stoked my powers of recall. “Oh yeah,” I thought to myself, “that’s the kind of goal that Arsenal used to score. I’d forgotten what they were like.”
TIGHTER DEFENSIVE ORGANISATION
(Very) broadly speaking, there are three methods of defending. Adopting a man for man approach and matching up with your opponents; pressing opponents when they have possession and forcing them into rash decisions with the ball, or defending space. Largely, Arsenal opt for the latter, though recent purchases of the likes of Gabriel, Xhaka and Elneny suggest that Arsene would like to become more of a pressing team.
He began to favour Gabriel over Mertesacker towards the end of last season, as the team was increasingly staffed with players that like to press- Welbeck, Iwobi, Alexis, Ramsey, Coquelin, even Monreal. The issue is that, whether marking space or pressing opponents, Arsenal’s defence do not get enough support. The unit does not take its off the ball duties seriously enough and the work rate in the defensive transition phase from the midfielders and forwards is still insufficient.
How many otherwise very good centre halves are going to come to Arsenal and have their reputations sullied before people make the connection? Centre backs that succeed for their national sides and for every other club that they represent struggle in N5 and N5 only, yet so few seem to join the dots. I am, largely, happy enough with the personnel in Arsenal’s back 5 (though Per’s injury alters that satisfaction a little). The team need to reinforce its attitude towards defending and coalesce with the back line first and foremost. Defending should be considered everyone’s responsibility.
FIND THE INNER BASTARD
For the love of all that is good Arsenal, when you are mounting a promising attack and an opposing player mysteriously crumples to the turf under little or no contact, please STOP GENTLY ROLLING THE FUCKING BALL OUT OF PLAY! Stop helping your opponents to waste your time. The referee decides whether or not to stop the game for an injured player. It’s very, very annoying when one of our precious little lambs apologetically submits to blatant gamesmanship. It’s unnecessary and it makes me want to rip off my arm and throw it on the pitch.
In all seriousness, Arsenal does need a healthy dose of cynicism. I suspect the purchase of Xhaka and the pursuit of Jamie Vardy formed part of a deliberate attempt to up the bastard quota in the squad. I am not suggesting that Arsenal morph into a pack of cheating toe rags, but at the moment we are positioned somewhere closer to the ‘Corinthians Over 65 Charity XI’ on the bastard scale. Cynicism in a football team is a bad master, but a good servant.
Being nice does not even seem to impress officials. Arsenal were awarded only 2 penalties in last season’s Premier League (Jamie Vardy won 7). In the North London derby in February, Coquelin was (deservedly) sent off, whereas Eric Dier, one of the league’s more cynical players playing for the league’s most cynical team, was afforded the benefit of the doubt for a pair of comparable offences. Like it or not, the psychology of officiating is important. Being nice boys is a handicap and marginal gains are a precious currency in the 21st century Premier League.
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