Left Wing Reform

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

Arsenal’s squad is as well stocked as it has been for some years with a series of versatile options in each department. But if there is one position in which Arsenal are not as strong as they could be, it is probably the left wing. Personally, I felt this to be a priority position for the Gunners’ summer transfer business. As pleasing as Alex Iwobi’s progression has been, the team quickly became reliant on him because he added the extra creative presence that the team sorely lacked from the wide areas.

Basically, Arsene has been looking for a playmaker to play from the left hand side since Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin departed. Wenger was not convinced enough by Joel Campbell, but Iwobi’s attributes quickly balanced the team. The Nigerian grabbed his chance with both hands, but the fact that he became a first team regular so quickly illustrates Arsenal’s shortage in that area. This season, Iwobi and Chamberlain have been the preferred options from the left.

The Ox is more comfortable on the right, but can play on the left hand side, where he has been deployed recently. Choosing between Chamberlain and Iwobi sets off something of a butterfly effect for the rest of the team because their qualities are so different. When Iwobi broke into the team last season, his function was to remove some of the creative burden from Mesut Özil, whom the team became far too dependent on both to build play and create goalscoring opportunities.

Iwobi was valuable to Arsenal’s attacking play as a link between the midfield and the forwards. Since Alexis Sánchez became the team’s striker, the tune has changed a little. Alexis drops deep into midfield to become involved in the build up and Özil has played further forward as a result, often swapping the false 9 role with the Chilean. The Gunners have not had to rely on Mesut as a creative force to quite the same extent.

Iwobi’s value has changed consequently. Özil is pretty much entirely removed from the midfield equation now, he is to be considered more of a forward. As such, Iwobi’s function is more about dropping back into midfield and creating an extra passing option. His movement and willingness to buzz around the pitch into pockets of half space mitigates slightly for Özil’s absence from the engine room. Arsenal are operating with a central midfield pairing, which puts them at a numerical disadvantage compared with most teams, with the midfield trio is still very much en vogue.

In short, Iwobi’s qualities made him very valuable to the forward line last season, where he struck up good relationships with Alexis, Özil and Welbeck. Now his qualities are more slanted towards providing the central midfielders with an extra body to help them build play. Especially as one of the central midfield players is pretty much always Francis Coquelin, who does not help to build play through possession quite so much.

Oxlade Chamberlain’s presence on the left-hand side turns Arsenal into a slightly different beast. As Anam wrote on Monday, Arsenal’s wingers are encouraged to come in field into the half spaces and make space for overlapping full-backs. For Everton’s equaliser on Tuesday night, Walcott is late getting over to Leighton Baines on the right hand side because he is quite a distance in field when the ball is switched to his flank.

Chamberlain creates Özil’s looping header against Stoke City as he drifts into the centre of the pitch and picks the pass. The Ox’s presence potentially gives Arsenal greater penetration in an attacking sense. Though his performances can still be erratic, he has begun to steadily improve his end product, with a total of 6 goals and 5 assists this season. Chamberlain is 23 and Wenger has regularly identified this age as significant in a player’s development- the age at which they should become more decisive.

Speaking after the 2-0 League Cup victory over Reading recently, Wenger said of Alex, “He is now 23 and at 23 you become a football player who is the finished article. Before 23, you learn your job. At 23, you become more consistent, you know what’s expected of you, you know how to deal with the pressure.” Ox is also a major beneficiary of Alexis moving into a centre forward role. Alexis’ presence on the wing proved to be a big roadblock for him prior to this season.

Both players like to dribble and commit defenders and it is difficult for the balance of the team to have two wingers of this ilk in the same side. One of the wide men needs to provide greater technical security and there’s simply no way that Chamberlain would win his place ahead of Alexis. That problem is reduced for him now, however, there is still a question as to whether you can have Chamberlain and Walcott manning both flanks in the same team.

With Chamberlain in the side of late, games have become a little more chaotic, which is fine when the encounter is a little stretched. With Cazorla injured, the Gunners have lost a crucial player that gets the team from A to B quickly and decisively. One way of mitigating for his loss is to play with wingers that carry the ball. Iwobi stitches Arsenal’s play together by making himself available for quick, short combinations. It’s a job that Tomas Rosicky did for Arsenal with great distinction.

Ox is more of an agent of chaos. Recent matches with West Ham, Bournemouth and Stoke have seen Arsenal sacrifice a little technical security in order to trade punches with the opposition. Chamberlain was bright in each of these games because he glories in this kind of game. Against Everton, this approach came a cropper as the Gunners struggled to get control of the game and the ball in the second half. Chamberlain’s presence often means Özil has tended to drop a little deeper to find the ball- especially in the absence of Mustafi whose line breaking passes have gilded the team’s creative lily.

One of Oxlade’s great weaknesses has been his inability to strike up good working relationships with his teammates (with the exception of Giroud) because he operates as an individual. Running at players, beating players, getting to the by-line, putting crosses in. These are his attributes and they all rely on his individualism. He has improved in that respect this season, striking up a good attacking partnership with Monreal. His goal against Nottingham Forest in September neatly encapsulates how his link up play has improved.

Ox has been given more opportunities recently, largely because Iwobi clearly needed a breather at some point and because Arsene is trying to convince him to sign a new contract. I think Lucas Perez will prove to be Walcott’s back up in the long run as the kind of wide striker. Danny Welbeck could give Wenger another option on the left. Welbeck is a very adaptable player, capable of following instruction and undertaking the task that best suits the setup.

The battle between Iwobi and Chamberlain is an interesting one; both are very different players whose presence set off subtle chain reactions around them. I think Wenger has a slight preference for an Iwobi type on the left, but at 20 years old, the Nigerian is still learning his craft and it would be ill advised to subject him to a 60 game season at this stage of his development. The squad could probably do with an elite option on the left, but Ox and Iwobi have the chance to push themselves and each other on by competing for that spot in the meantime.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto


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