Thursday, November 30, 2023

Arsenal’s Pressing Concerns

The day after the 2015 FA Cup Final, Arsene Wenger broadly hinted at a quiet summer on the transfer front, explaining, “people think always it’s about buying but it’s as well about cohesion, and cohesion is a very important factor that is a bit underrated usually by people. We have to keep that cohesion and maybe add quality. But the quality we have to add is in short numbers.”

He was true to his word, adding only Petr Cech to his squad via the market. At the end of the 2014-15 season, Wenger, by hook or by crook, had stumbled on a formula that saw his side end the season strongly. Francis Coquelin and Hector Bellerin had become bona fide first team regulars, whilst Aaron Ramsey undertook a free role from the right hand side. Meanwhile, Theo Walcott briefly promised to complete his chrysalis into a centre forward.

In March and April 2015, Wenger selected an unchanged starting XI for seven consecutive Premier League games- a record under his stewardship. It appears that he backed this new formula to challenge for the title in the 2015-16 season. Just under a year ago, I wrote a column outlining my belief that squad rotation is one of Arsene’s big weaknesses. He has always been quite effective at handling the team’s numerous injury crises because he tends to do his best work when his choices are limited.

In the summer of 2015, it appears that the manager was satisfied with the new structure he had found and he backed players such as Chamberlain, Debuchy, Gabriel, Wilshere, Arteta and Welbeck to provide competition and cover. Obviously, that failed to come to fruition. Issues with the structure were already being exposed at the back end of the 2014-15 season, when the Gunners began to struggle in home matches against defensive opposition.

Consecutive shut outs by Swansea and Sunderland in May 2015 caused a frisson of anxiety; the manager even trialled a Cazorla-Ramsey double pivot in the 0-0 draw with Sunderland. But the 4 goal shoeings of flip flop clad West Brom and a dreadful Aston Villa side appeared to convince the boss that the issues were temporary. Replacing an ailing Olivier Giroud with a thirsty Theo Walcott upfront seemed to persuade Arsene that the problems they had encountered against Swansea and Sunderland were more a symptom of confidence than structure.

In the early autumn of 2015, with a reinvigorated Walcott playing through the middle, the Gunners routed Manchester United and Leicester City and ground out a home win against Bayern Munich in the Champions League. But once again injuries decimated this tactical composition. Aaron Ramsey pulled his hamstring against Bayern, Theo Walcott did likewise in a league cup tie at Sheffield Wednesday and Cazorla, Coquelin and Alexis were all felled in November.

Arsene could not replicate this unit because he did not have like for like replacements in his squad. Ramsey came in for Cazorla, Flamini for Coquelin, Joel Campbell for Alexis and Giroud for Walcott. Each of these players were stylistically opposed to the individuals they replaced. Within this unfamiliar arrangement, the likes of Chamberlain and the returning Walcott, deployed on the left, underperformed. An already limited Mathieu Flamini was shoehorned into a structure that did not suit his qualities and Ramsey under-delivered on his talent for similar reasons.

The introductions of Mohamed Elneny, Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck smoothed over a disjointed Frankenstein of a team as the season drew to a close. Fast forward to September and the Gunners still looks like a team struggling for identity and distinctly lacking in cohesion approximately two years into the cycle of this squad. Arsene was right to say that cohesion is an underrated quality in football. I’m just not convinced that Arsenal have truly had it for some time.

Over the summer, Wenger rightly added options to the spine of the team. The manager says that he does not like to add more than three players to his starting XI in any one window and the purchases of Lucas, Mustafi and Xhaka come close to filling that quota. As these players settle, assuming they claim their intended spots, this will require some transition as the new boys adjust to their teammates and vice versa.

It’s therefore slightly concerning that five games into the new season Arsenal still look like a team in transition, even though the new boys have not been heavily involved to date. Against PSG on Tuesday, only Mustafi and Iwobi (the latter an academy graduate) can claim not to have been bona fide Arsenal first team players 12 months ago. Even Petr Cech, signed in June 2015, was not involved.

Towards the end of last season, Arsenal suddenly found themselves with a clutch of “front footed” players, that like to press and to intercept. Welbeck, Iwobi, Elneny, Ramsey, Alexis, Gabriel, Koscielny, Bellerin, Coquelin and Monreal. It suggested that the Gunners might become a team capable of forcing turnovers high up the pitch; the signings of Xhaka and Lucas seemed to at least complement this strategy.

Yet Arsenal do not seem to have crossed this bridge into the high pressure promised land. It is admittedly difficult to maintain a high press for 90 minutes of every game over a whole season. It’s good practice to choose your moments carefully, as Arsenal did so masterfully against Manchester United last October, hounding them into surrender for the first 30 minutes of the game, before easing off with a three goal cushion comfortably secured.

I can’t help but be concerned when I see Alexis constantly motioning his teammates forward to press, before his shoulders slump into a huff when his colleagues do not oblige. A good pressing game demands choreography, it requires a level of instruction that I am not convinced Wenger provides. When Alexis feels the need to motion his teammates forward at regular intervals, is he going rogue on instructions? Are his teammates when they don’t respond? Are there any instructions?

Obviously I do not know for sure, but I suspect some of the issue is that a pressing tactic does not co-exist with the manager’s preference for self-determination amongst his players. He spent £35m on a deep lying midfielder that many of us assumed had been bought to allay Arsenal’s problems with building play. Yet thus far, he seems wedded to the Coq-zorla axis. The team, for the moment at least, is cryogenically frozen into identity crisis. This is an issue that began at the outset of the 2014-15 season and has persisted for all but a short period between the end of 2014-15 and the beginning of 2015-16.

Arsene probably has more options than ever with the current crop. The mix and match cadre of central midfielders he has assembled give him the option to go for a “horses for courses” approach, tailoring his team selection according to the opposition- something he has been regularly criticised for not doing. But maybe this causes a problem given Wenger’s apparent discomfort with squad rotation. It is still early in the campaign and these problems could be ironed out in time.

However, that didn’t really ever happen last season, as I wrote back in March. The manager’s apparent indecisiveness in the transfer market has become an accepted wisdom and the stick he is beaten with most ferociously. But his indecisiveness with tactics and selection ought to be a bigger concern. (Maybe one hesitance informs the other?) For the last two years or so, it feels as though Arsenal have tried to become a jack of all tactical trades, mastering none in the process.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto 

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