One of the key features of Arsenal’s never ending Groundhog season is the recovery mode that Arsene Wenger is inevitably left to retreat into as we move towards the spring. With another campaign veering towards choppy waters, the manager usually tries to shock his team into some kind of working order with a drastic tactical or personnel change.
This ‘short, sharp shock’ often saves face for Arsene as the increasingly restless natives circle the palace walls, guillotine in tow. In 2005-06, revolution was foisted upon the manager due to a lengthy injury list. A defence featuring Emmanuel Eboue, Mathieu Flamini and Philippe Senderos required extra protection, so Arsene finally decided to take his team’s off ball activities a little more seriously.
The result was that Arsenal snuck into 4th (with a helpful nudge from a dodgy lasagne) and qualified for the final of the Champions League. In January 2009, Arsenal trailed Aston Villa in 4th place when Cesc Fabregas hobbled out of a challenge with Xabi Alonso somewhat gingerly. The prognosis forecast ten weeks out and Wenger was again left to rethink his MO.
Song and Denilson formed a decidedly more defensive midfield duo as the Gunners became focussed on not conceding (they drew 0-0 for four consecutive games during January and February 2009). The new found defensive solidarity, the panic signing of Andrey Arshavin (who Wenger had previously publicly raised doubts about) allied with a Villa collapse saw them edge into 4th place again.
In 2011-12, Arsene quietly reshuffled his midfield pack. He swapped the positions of Mikel Arteta, who moved to the base of midfield, and Alex Song, who became an undetected supply line for Robin van Persie. The manager also took a struggling Aaron Ramsey out of the firing line and supplanted his inexperience with Tomas Rosicky and Yossi Benayoun as the Gunners squeezed into the last Champions League spot again.
In the spring of 2013, defeat at White Hart Lane seemed to curtail ambitions of Champions League qualification, until Arsene dropped Wojciech Szczesny and Tomas Vermaelen, radically reshaping his defence in the process. The Gunners conceded only 5 goals in their final 10 games, inching into 4th place ahead of their hated neighbours once more.
In the second half of 2014-15, the surprise emergences of Hector Bellerin and Francis Coquelin and a tactical rejig which saw Aaron Ramsey move to the right of midfield caused a temporary rise in form. Last season, with all other avenues exhausted, Wenger switched to a back 3 for the first time in two decades.
The manager didn’t roll that particular dice until April last season- too late to entirely save a flagging league campaign, but he was able to secure a record 13th FA Cup win. If Arsenal are to qualify for the Champions League again this season, they are going to have to significantly raise their game. Having spent the first half of the season as the 6th best team in the country, they need to redress that curve pretty quickly.
These short term boosts tend to work best when the team is settled. In this respect, being eliminated from the Champions League in early March every season has had its advantages. That said, it isn’t just tactical tomfoolery that has aided and abetted Wenger’s late season scheming. Momentum is important too, some of those surges were jet fuelled by a confidence inducing victory.
Beating Real Madrid in the Bernabeu breathed new life into an ailing Arsenal in 2006. Rescuing a 2 goal deficit against Spurs in 2012 had a kind of economies of scale effect, as the Gunners sunk their teeth into Tottenham’s necks and drained them of their pluck. The FA Cup quarter-final victory at Old Trafford in 2015 likewise gave Arsenal a timely transfusion. Perhaps the Carabao Cup or the Europa League can provide an elixir in 2018.
It feels like Arsenal is too fundamentally broken to be reanimated again. A dead cat will only bounce so many times before its bone structure disintegrates and its corpse simply falls to earth with a meaty thump. Yet we are fast approaching the point where Arsene is going to have to switch the machine off and then switch it back on again.
The question is, how can he eke the extra percentile he needs to steer Arsenal back into the Champions League next season? The first pursuit should be for greater clarity. I have never held a strong opinion on whether the team should line up in a back 3 or a back 4. It’s a good idea if a team can function in a variety of systems too, so I’ve no issue with switching between the two in principle.
The important thing is that the team has a good grip of its roles in either system and that is what Arsene urgently needs to address. The defibrillator effect can only last for so long and slowly the visage had started to peel away on the 3 man defence. Frankly, there needs to be some far more meaningful work done with how the team sets itself up off the ball.
Having played bifurcate starting XIs in the first half of the season, I fancy Arsene should look to settle his line up. Even if Arsenal progress in the Europa League, ordinarily the first team have been involved in the Champions League group stages by now. This season they have been afforded some respite from midweek European competition in the autumn.
The FA Cup elimination means Arsenal have at least two free weekends on the horizon. Arsene can use this period not only for R & R, but to spend valuable coaching time with his team. He has remarked in the past that it is difficult to coach in any meaningful way after pre-season, but he can use these pauses in the calendar to his advantage.
With Premier League lucre more important than ever, Arsenal have had to face survivalist football far more often. Even away from home, teams are now perfectly happy to sit ten men behind the ball and the Gunners have struggled to cope with it. To repeat a recurring theme in this column over recent months, Arsenal need some of their attacking players to contribute more goals.
At time of writing, there is an excellent chance that Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez will both leave during the January transfer window. (Only injury seems to have enervated the rumours around Olivier Giroud’s future). That doesn’t leave the squad with many reliable goal scorers.
Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil are very important to the team’s overall attacking game, but both need to start scoring more consistently. Alex Iwobi is still developing, but Arsenal need him to improve his end product. That goes for Danny Welbeck too. If Alexis Sanchez is sold, Wenger is going to have to buy a player with a good goalscoring record this January.
Buying somebody that can dovetail with Alexandre Lacazette ought to be a priority. He is the only member of Arsenal’s attack in a strong contract position. He is the future more than anyone. The Frenchman is still adapting to the Premier League and after an up and down start, it is not unreasonable to expect him to improve. Juicing an extra 5-10% from Lacazette could have a seismic effect on Arsenal’s season.
Arsene has really struggled to balance the team between defence and attack over a number of years now, so I don’t expect him to manage it in the remaining months of the season. A marginal improvement in defence ought to be manageable, at least. But on balance, getting more out of the attack, especially away from home, ought to be a priority. At Selhurst Park and Goodison Park, the Gunners conceded twice, but were still able to win both games because the attack clicked.
Arsenal could go some way to re-energising the club with some key contract renewals or even by starting the squad rebuild in January. Winning the Carabao Cup could also give them an important boost if at all possible. But Arsene needs to find a more tangible way of defibrillating the Gunners’ season. Again.