After a week with another two tight but very creditable home victories, The Gunners seem to be exploring every different route to three points available to them.
We’ve seen the straight shoot-out away at Leicester, the early blitz against Man United, the methodical tiring out then strike against Watford, defending deep and counter-attack vs Bayern, and now the crosses to the big men when the legs have gone against Everton on Saturday.
For a first team so often pilloried in recent years for only knowing one way to play, it is both exciting and surprising to see such conscious adaptability. Particularly as this flexibility has been visible in both the set-up from the start of the match AND as the games have unfolded.
With the squad once again undermined by a succession of injuries in the same position (with Ramsey, Wilshere, Rosicky and Arteta all out suddenly the midfield looks rather less an embarrassment of riches), this cutting of cloth to suit the opposition is largely being achieved with the same personnel. Which is evidence of both the increased focus and confidence within the squad, and the fact that Wenger is preparing his team in a way we haven’t seen for a while. This suggests that he genuinely believes this team can put together a real title challenge, rather than just saying it in hope.
There is of course one very significant exception to our enforced utilisation of the same starting 11. Up front.
With both Giroud and Walcott having some exceptional qualities, but equally weaknesses, that prevent either from being an ideal all round striker, Wenger is making selections according to the challenge ahead.
This is a definite departure from anything we’ve seen from Le Boss before. We HAVE seen tactical tweaking in midfield over the years to exploit particular weaknesses, or more often counter specific threats. But can anyone remember Arsene (or indeed the managers that preceded him) rotating his strike force on the basis of anything bar fitness?
I can’t remember a time when we didn’t know our first choice striker. Even with two up front, we’ve always known who was going to spearheading the side. Whether Wright, Anelka, Henry, Adebayor, RVP or Giroud, there has seldom been doubt about the leading man regardless of cast changes elsewhere. Even back in the 80’s, the only time there wasn’t a clear first choice was when none of the options were performing in a way to merit continued selection.
This is not the case at the moment.
While there have been enough missed chances to occasionally mourn the ghosts of strikers past, on the whole both Giroud and Walcott have performed pretty well. Accordingly, it has been obvious that Wenger is trying to second guess opposition tactics, or at least the pattern of play, when making his choice of who should lead the line.
This was first explicitly evident against Newcastle, where the team struggled to adapt to a Theo-led counter-attacking approach, slightly crashing against the rocks of their 10-man rearguard action. But it had also been demonstrated in the charity shield, where Walcott was chosen to worry Terry with his pace, and ultimately assisted on Oxlade-Chamberlain’s winner by dropping short when slower defenders were scared of leaving space behind them.
Equally, this weekend’s selection against Everton, as well as being a reward for Giroud’s goalscoring form, was directly influenced by Everton’s central defensive pairing. With Sylvain Distin now departed, the Toffees options are mobile and technically adept, but lacking in size. Giroud’s enviable recent record against them is definitely related to this, and they struggled to cope with his physicality throughout, though it was his movement that was the primary reason for his opening goal. That and the on-form assist-meister Mesut Ozil, who’s current performance level is key to to allowing the team to flourish regardless of which of the divergent options are feeding off his creativity.
At present, it seems the formula is largely Walcott against teams who want to play expansively, dominate possession or favour a high line, and Giroud against everyone else. Theoretically, this can be easy to counter, but the impact of our burly Frenchman off the bench has strengthened Arsene’s hand no end.
It has been evident that some opponents have struggled to adjust to the aerial power and hold up play of Giroud after an hour or so being primarily concerned with the pace and diagonal runs of Walcott. Bayern in particular had no answer, when Alaba, selected for his pace, suddenly found himself confronted with a man twice his size. Whether Theo can be as incisive off the bench remains to be seen, but his goal in Zagreb wasn’t a bad start.
What also complicates things for opponents is that in the final third, Arsenal as a team play very differently depending on who is at centre-forward.
With Walcott, it’s all speed, sharp movements and instant one and two-touch passing moves, always looking for the killer ball in between the centre-halves or down the channels, with Alexis further forward and nearer Theo, and Ozil dropping deeper into spaces created by the opposition’s fear of Theo’s pace. With Giroud there is a greater onus on controlled possession, runners from midfield support in the front man, and crosses into and around the six-yard box.
Two varying styles, which force changes in approach from opposing full-backs and defensive midfielders, as well as the more obvious adjustments for a the centre-halves.
Longer term, this poses an interesting question as to where our less prolific hybrid option, Danny Welbeck, sits within the first-team’s evolution. He has the basic skillset to allow us to switch between styles seamlessly, but without polishing his ability to finish from the positions he can get himself into, it currently looks as though he may see as much time in the wider positions as up front.
Of course, having such an unsettling impact on opposing back-lines is largely dependent on the Arsenal team functioning well, particularly in midfield, which adds to the concern of diminishing numbers at present. If we can muddle through until numbers start coming back, the outlook will be rosy. That said, it is also potentially negated by conceding goals, and thus the initiative.
So our re-discovered defensive solidity is as important as ever. And our willingness to adjust our defensive line potentially as transformative as our striking options, with Gabriel’s ability to slot in alongside either Mertesacker or Koscielny massively encouraging. Although apparently down to Mertesacker being ill, it was no bad thing to have Gabriel on the field against Everton’s quick front line, particularly when occasionally caught up-field. Another couple of inches and it would have been an excellently blocked shot rather than an unfortunate deflected own goal.
It seems, despite frustrations over the lack of summer expenditure, this squad is finally building the flexibility fans have been craving for some time, and that is necessary to challenge on multiple fronts.
The question is, whether a barren transfer summer has left us short of both the numbers and quality to ultimately make those challenges successful.