Criticisms of Arsene Wenger’s teams down the years have become well-worn and familiar. At the outset of the Emirates era, Arsenal always seemingly needed a big centre half or midfield enforcer, no matter how impoverished their creative play. Andrey Arshavin signed for the Gunners in January 2009 in the middle of a run of four consecutive 0-0 draws, yet still many journalists and pundits labelled the Russian playmaker a luxury signing.
The same happened when Mesut Özil’s signature was procured in 2013. During the previous campaign, Arsenal had most commonly used 3 finishers in Giroud, Walcott and Podolski in their attack- possibly the least creative frontline in Wenger’s premiership. Santi Cazorla ploughed a lone furrow in the Gunners ideas department, yet many commentators were adamant that one of the world’s finest creators was apparently not required.
Old ideas die hard I guess, but I have been of the opinion for quite a long time that Arsenal have lacked creativity. That’s not to say that they could not have done with a midfield enforcer or a commanding centre half on occasion. But for a team to function properly, it needs to expound on its strengths. The best teams have an identity- a philosophy if you will- that the players rigorously buy into.
I have written many times that I don’t think Arsenal ever really replaced Robert Pires as a secondary creative presence. I think they got close to it in 2007-08, with Alex Hleb, Tomas Rosicky and Fabregas vibing off of one another. Alas, Rosicky’s hamstrings and Hleb’s flightiness shut off that connection at the mains.
In 2010-11, the so called “Theo van Nasregas” quartet looked like an exciting blend of offensive qualities too. Fabregas and Nasri were a good technical complement for van Persie’s ability to improvise and create space and for Walcott’s ability to run into it. It is for this reason that I think Alex Iwobi quickly became one of the most important players in Arsenal’s current roster.
It is not a huge coincidence that Arsenal have lost their way since the Nigerian was taken out of the firing line. That’s not because I think Iwobi is one of the best players in the team. He is still a raw talent learning his craft. I understand the need to stand him down a touch at this stage of his development and while his form has suffered a little.
The problem here is that Iwobi’s attributes are so useful, but he is the only player in the squad to possess them. It used to be a running joke that Wenger would hoard featherweight playmakers capable of playing wide and through the centre. Iwobi is now the only player in the squad that truly fits this prototype.
For my money, the continuing reluctance to add an experienced secondary playmaker remains Arsene’s most prolonged transfer market error. Not for the first time in recent years, this is an Arsene Wenger side that lacks technicians- especially in the build-up phase. If the impact of Iwobi’s exile can be perceived, then the absence of Santi Cazorla shows up like a turd on the carpet.
It is no wonder that Mesut Özil has taken on the appearance of a toddler in the supermarket that cannot find his mum. It takes an age to deliver the ball to him and by the time it eventually does arrive, the opposition defence is heavily manned, limiting the German’s effectiveness. The best approximation of this team has Cazorla and Iwobi helping to supply Özil with swift manipulation of space and possession.
With Cazorla injured, Iwobi absent and the bodies of Rosicky, Arteta and Wilshere creaking into footballing extinction, Arsenal do not have the players to play Wengerball. Arsene has said many times that he relies on technical players that improvise and take risks. Improvisation is the midwife to Wengerball because of its spontaneity. It happens quickly and unpredictably, wrong footing opponents.
At this moment in time, Arsenal just do not have enough players to quicken the pace of the build up play. Against this framework, Alexis’ profligacy in possession becomes more problematic. Because of the lack of creative impetus in the team, the Chilean tries to do more in deeper areas of the pitch and it becomes a bit of a vicious cycle. He drops deeper, he gives the ball away, he gets frustrated and his radar errs even more.
In a technically proficient team, Alexis’ proclivity towards risk taking is very welcome. Every attack ought to have a pocket dynamo to vary a team’s style. Freddie Ljungberg and Sylvain Wiltord were technically quite average, but they gave that Arsenal squad a little extra cutting edge. Luis Suarez is quite a frustrating player to watch over 90 minutes because he often loses the ball with failed dribbles.
But the framework around him permits him those risks and, like Alexis, he tends to get one right eventually- to devastating effect. Alexis is incredibly valuable in a sound technical structure because he offers a surprise element and variety. Theo Walcott’s shortcomings were accommodated in the 2010-11 squad because Fabregas, Nasri and van Persie, Wilshere and even Alex Song, was a sound enough platform to accommodate a maverick.
But the Gunners do not have this profile of player at the moment. The likes of Ramsey, Chamberlain, Coquelin and Walcott do not offer that technical security. Xhaka is a good passer, especially over distance, but he is not so much a catalyst for the quick, short combination football that has become Wenger’s trademark.
Maybe Xhaka could be with the right partner, but Arsenal’s midfield is staffed with lots of specialists and few all-rounders. As a result, it has been difficult for the manager to find a functioning partnership. Two specialists in tandem still leave you with some significant flaws. With the exception of Santi, none of the central midfielders have a specialism for short, quick forward passing moves. Elneny comes close, but his passing is not penetrative enough to completely qualify.
Olivier Giroud has never been an especially mobile striker, but this was less of a problem in the past because he has a very sound technical level and a good touch. His arsenal of flicks and deft touches on the edge of the penalty area used to be something of a trademark.
It is difficult to recall the last time he was given the opportunity to use his soft feet in the final third, because Arsenal’s forward play is no longer guided by the swift interchange of passes. He used to be a pivot and a battering ram, but the lack of technically accomplished midfielders behind him means he is now solely deployed as the latter.
It is easy and a little comfortable to focus on intangibles as Arsenal continue to negotiate their current travails. Whilst I think there is likely a kernel of truth in the common tropes that the team lacks leadership, that it is sometimes mentally and physically weak, I think there is a simpler truth. Arsenal’s style requires a high technical level and Arsene is trying to achieve it with a technically average squad.
Arsenal do lack a little overall leadership I think- the type that turns draws into victories and defeats into draws. Therefore leadership, determination, grit- whatever you want to call it- is a very important element for a top level squad. But it’s a marginal element. Arsenal’s technical play is their foundation- their bread and butter. Good leadership helps you to clamber up from the canvas when you have been knocked down. At the moment, Arsenal are struggling to get into the ring.
As a result, a little of the belief has been lost amongst the players. Maybe the reliance on data in player recruitment has taken a little of the human element out of Arsene’s squad construction. The manager spins a yarn about his interest in Antoine Griezmann at Real Sociedad, how he eventually decided against pursuing the Frenchman after chatting with the analytics bods.
This is not to decry analytics at all- it obviously forms a crucial part of player recruitment. But is there a possibility that the balance is a little wrong at Arsenal and, as a result, they are buying good players that are not necessarily Wenger players?
That’s total speculation on my part of course, but this squad doesn’t seem to have the physical and technical profile capable of delivering the short, sharp, swift movement required for an Arsene Wenger team. I think this lays at the beating heart of their recent struggles. Arsenal have missed their smallest, quietest player more than anyone.