This season Arsenal have demonstrated a predilection for a late goal and a fightback. There are two prisms through which to view this. It can be viewed generously. It shows that the team has a measure of fortitude in adversity and it also speaks well of their general fitness levels, as time and again they are able to wear tired opponents down in the latter stages of games. On the flipside, one has to question why Arsenal so constantly find themselves frantically snipping wires with the clock ticking down to zero.
This is what makes Arsenal so confusing and irritating. They are mentally strong enough to recover from their own mental weaknesses. Last season’s Champions League group stage is a fine distillation of the team’s ability to shoot itself in the foot, then carefully extract the bullet and limp over the finishing line. In fact, the competition has hosted many of Arsenal’s acts of death bed repentance, as they conceal the stocking, the orange and the amyl nitrate and salvage a little dignity in their Champions League death.
So why have so many of the Gunners’ fixtures ended in acts of escapology this season? Well, largely it is because Arsenal are a team with a slight structural defect and, as such, they thrive in periods of chaos. This is largely a symptom of midfield dysfunction. Cazorla and Coquelin is not a perfect combination, but it is the only pairing that has come close to concealing the deficiencies. The uneasy marriage in Arsenal’s midfield is embodied by Mesut Özil and Francis Coquelin.
The German’s defensive output is so meagre that Coquelin is necessary to shoulder some of the additional burden Özil’s presence creates. In turn, Coquelin’s output with the ball at his feet is somewhat impoverished, so the midfield is breaking even rather than profiting. (Though Mustafi’s passing from defence has helped to reduce the deficit a little). It’s a unit of co-dependence rather than a well-oiled machine with interlocking parts. Arsenal effectively play a midfield pair who are usually tasked with taking on an opposition trio.
This can create chaotic, basketball style games, which Arsenal can master against inferior opposition. Games at home to Bournemouth and away at West Ham a few weeks ago saw Wenger’s men prosper in open, anarchic affairs. But if you keep swinging wildly, eventually your chin will be tested and we have seen this in recent matches, where the relationship between Coquelin and Özil has been supplanted by more unfamiliar midfield partnerships and the sticking plaster has perished.
When played upfront, Alexis often drops back into midfield to create a little more presence in the build up, but he has made way for the more orthodox presence of Giroud at centre forward in recent weeks, rendering the midfield cupboard even barer. The system has been slightly precarious since the beginning of the season, but a few key cogs have changed in recent weeks and the small hole in Arsenal’s bucket has begun to gape.
It’s telling that Arsenal have opened the scoring in all three of their Premier League defeats this season. They also failed to hold a 2-1 advantage at home to Paris Saint Germain to ensure top spot in their Champions League group. (Fortunately, PSG had their own custard pie moment on match day 6). Arsenal do not really know how to play when they don’t really need a goal- or else, they lack the tools to bring the temperature of the game down when in the ascendancy.
Performances in tight games against defensive sides like Burnley, Middlesbrough and West Brom were fairly stable across the whole 90 minutes, because the objective did not change for the vast majority of these matches. Only Middlesbrough properly tested the Gunners’ openness in midfield on the counter attack through Adama Traore.
Messrs Koeman and Guardiola made tactical alterations with their teams trailing Arsenal at half time. Arsene is good at injecting needed attacking impetus from the dressing room when required. But he rarely intervenes from the dugout and his team floundered, failing to respond to the change in impetus in either match. In August, Liverpool overturned the Gunners’ opening goal, racing into a 4-1 lead. Only at that point, when the home side had to throw caution to the wind and play with abandon, did they reassert themselves and pull the score back to 3-4.
When Aaron Ramsey scores the equaliser against Preston on Saturday evening, he and Arsene exchange a brief thumbs up, which suggests the two had a conversation about Ramsey pushing on at half time. Wenger is more comfortable and arguably more competent at issuing clear instructions when his team needs to attack. Arsenal are far less comfortable at controlling matches when necessary.
A fast, fluid, interchanging front three of Iwobi, Walcott and Alexis improved the team’s attacking output earlier in the season. However, Cazorla, Coquelin and Özil have all been absent to varying degrees in recent weeks and Alexis has been moved back out wide. Consequently, the space behind the attack has become more of an issue. Arsenal have lacked a clear identity. Short of the tried and trusted Coqzorla axis, the manager still appears uncertain as to how his midfield should be structured.
Therefore, the pattern of Arsenal’s games has seen the team meander with little direction in the opening exchanges. The unit appears unsure of itself, staggering in a quasi-dazed fashion until the final period of the game, when the clouds break and they unleash Operation Thunder. Like a student that begins an assignment the night before it is due, the Gunners cease the pretence of a coherent plan and start bashing at the keyboard. This is why players like Olivier Giroud and Lucas Perez have prospered in recent weeks.
Giroud is a player tailor made for the white knuckle stage of the game, when opponents tire and his colleagues are panicked into directness. Lucas is cut from a similar cloth to Theo Walcott, in that he offers little in the build-up phase, but his movement in the penalty area is excellent. He and Giroud have become brothers in arms when the nightclub lights come on and everyone on the dancefloor suddenly looks very ungraceful indeed. They have become something close to a traditional ‘little and large’ strike pairing in the last two games.
Arsene’s bench has bailed him out on many an occasion this season. This is largely because he has a good squad with a variety of attacking options. But it is also because the attackers that he sends on benefit from Arsenal’s loss of inhibition, as they give up on any semblance of a strategy and embrace kitchen sink football. Essentially, the Gunners benefit from chaotic, lawless periods of the game because they have become a slightly chaotic, lawless team.
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