Arsenal’s Saturday stroll in Hull showed some hints of method to what has appeared tactical madness.
In the early going this season, it’s been very hard trying to work out the thinking behind certain elements of both team selection and tactical shape.
The side has been badly exposed against Liverpool and PSG, and fairly toothless against Leicester, with a real lack of cohesion in midfield and up front at times.
It’s been pretty obvious that Alexis has neither the stature, instincts or desire to fulfil the role of a centre forward, and that Coquelin has not been sitting deep as the more defensive of our midfield double pivot. The former has been oft attributed to a lack of signings and managerial tactical incompetence, and the latter to a lack of discipline from a limited player with ideas above their station.
The thing is, however, it is becoming clear that both elements are deliberate, and against weaker opposition at the weekend, it also became clear how they might work once the team’s adjustment is developed.
Starting with the frustrating and confusing deployment of Alexis up top, there is a longer term trend to consider.
Despite sterling service over the last few seasons, it is important to remember that Olivier Giroud was never bought to be the club’s first choice front man. Always intended to be ‘plan B’, he was thrust into the limelight by Van Persie’s calculated bridge burning and the unwillingness to put a shift in of Lukas Podolski.
Since then, Wenger has tried to buy another, better striker every summer. We were gazzumped for Higuain. Liverpool brazenly refused to meet Suarez’s contract clause conditions. Wenger was out-bid for Griezmann. Then we were turned down by first Benzema and then Vardy. And those are just the ones we know about.
A key component of all of the above is more mobility and more positional flexibility than our finely chiselled Frenchman. And it’s not just transfer targets that are an indicator. Lest we forget, last season kicked off with Walcott having a punt as the central striker, with some initial promise before injuries and loss of form and confidence left him fading badly. Equally, when fit and on form, Danny Welbeck has been a more appealing option.
Taken together, it’s pretty clear evidence that Wenger is still reluctant to shape his tactical masterplan around a robust target man. The desire to move away from a Giroud-centric approach is further confirmed by the summer targeting of Henrikh Mkhitaryan prior to a combination of Mino Raiola and Man United’s desperation fuelled willingness to pay the kind of wages and signing fee that would have seriously screwed Arsenal’s wage structure. Given the Armenian’s excellence on the flanks, one can only assume that Wenger was always intending to give Alexis and/or Walcott time up top.
So we are currently seeing Alexis in a roving role that allows him to alternate between central striker, inside forward and false nine.
It’s clear that the balance for making this work isn’t right yet, and as a team this is too often leaving us without a focal point and with no bodies in the box, but when we play with real pace it can be effective.
Olivier Giroud remains an underrated footballer with many strengths, but undeniably can slow down the speed at which we attack. This is as much down to his teammates as himself, as with him in the side we can get too reliant on his hold-up play and ability to fight for longer clearances. While a useful outlet, it does significantly limit the team’s capacity to transition from one penalty area to the other at a speed that prevents the opposition from setting up positionally.
As such, despite not really being a ‘tippy-tappy’ footballer, Giroud’s presence can force the team into more of that style of play due to his comparative inability to run in behind and stretch the play. Accordingly an Alexis, Lucas, Welbeck or even Walcott can provide greater dynamism on our attacking play, particularly on the counter, which of course was a staple of our great teams of Wenger’s golden years.
This is particularly important against stronger opposition, where quicker transitional play is vital to create chances. It’s one of the reasons that Theo’s goal scoring record is as good against the top four and in Derby matches as against relegation fodder, whereas the more consistent Giroud’s record is more that of a ‘flat track bully’.
The ability of Alexis, Welbeck when fit, and, theoretically, Lucas to drop deeper and wider against a more organised back line in unbroken play should also benefit Theo as well. I’m sure I was not alone in questioning the latest round of Theo as a striker comments, particularly given his exclusively right-sided selection, but in retrospect they make sense when looking beyond old school roles and certainties.
In many ways Theo is actually playing as a striker so far this year, just one stationed with a starting point on the right flank. Unsurprisingly, given his lack of size and strength, and that number of years of service in that role, Theo is undoubtedly more comfortable as a goal threat from a wider starting position. His runs between centre half and full back can be very effective with the right service, and with a more mobile and deeper dropping centre forward it can create more space for his speed to exploit, particularly when we play with a lead.
The other impact of an Alexis or similar dropping deeper is that it allows a greater fluidity in the midfield, ultimately providing more cover for Walcott’s defensive deficiencies, and allowing his out-to-in runs to end up in more central areas. We saw the same in Walcott’s first really productive season, where Van Persie’s ability to alternate between number nine and number 10 positionally created more space for the jet-heeled Englishman.
Of course, for this to work against better opposition, ball retention and snappy interchanges of passing in midfield and the other flank are vital. Both Walcott and Alexis, for different reasons, struggle for consistency when it comes to maintaining and re-cycling possession, so more control is needed elsewhere in order to provide balance. This is part of the reasons why Oxlade-Chamberlain’s current struggles are shown in even sharper relief. As another risk/reward player, he is essentially competing with Walcott and Alexis, as tactically it simply isn’t very sensible to have all three front players lacking in consistent ball retention.
As such, until such a time as Giroud finds himself back as the striking spearhead, Iwobi is a far better choice than the Ox. He keeps the ball far better, is much more adept at positional rotation in the final third, and is much better at the close combination play and slide through passes that attackers like Alexis and Walcott thrive upon. Oxlade-Chamberlain is the more dynamic, explosive player, more capable of creating or scoring as a result of individual endeavours, but as a possession vacuum in wider areas needs to find more end product, and quickly.
Looking elsewhere on the team sheet, there are other players whose roles are affected by our alternative approach at centre-forward. With Alexis popping up in a variety of attaching positions, it gives Ozil even more freedom to roam and get into the penalty area, as we saw to great effect against Watford. Already this season he is seeing more goalscoring opportunities than before. With better finishing at the weekend and a better touch in key moments against both PSG and Southampton, he could easily have multiplied his goal tally this year.
This also leads us to the ongoing evolution of our central midfield. Against both Liverpool and PSG there were periods where the balance was badly wrong. The scousers very effectively out-false-nine-ed us by playing a continually rotating cast of fast creative attacking hybrid footballers and scored some peachy goals against our inadequately protected makeshift defence. We also lacked balance in attack with Ramsey either too deep or not deep enough. PSG similarly outnumbered us in the areas between the boxes, though we adjusted well as the second half went on.
What is interesting is the staunch retention of Coq-zorla despite the expensive summer acquisition of the impressive Xhaka. This seems in part a case of easing a new man in (rather than going full Mourinho and dropping people in at the deep end), but also about pairings and a desire to re-integrate some of the dynamism of a more mobile role that Xhaka had earlier in his career.
What is most interesting is the deployment of Coquelin in a more box to box role, utilising his athleticism, while primarily having Cazorla as the deeper distributing player. In some ways this makes perfect sense. Cazorla lacks the legs to travel large distances at speed, and Coquelin lacks the close control and passing range to be the man receiving the ball from the back four on a regular basis. On the flip side, Coquelin is not an ideal candidate for the edge of the opposition box (despite often being the only one getting into the area in Paris and winning the penalty doing so again at the weekend), and Cazorla is not who you want as the back four’s primary protection. There is still some work to do with regards to getting this balance right.
An interesting sub-plot to this central question mark is the other options for those roles. It is entirely plausible that honing our current partnership in this way is with a view to allow a more seamless interchange for the team with a Xhaka-Ramsey alternative, if the Welshman can be convinced to return to his 2013-14 role rather than the more advanced ones he as occupied (officially or otherwise) since. And of course Elneny can to a degree slot into either as required.
Of course, one Humberside swallow does not make a summer, and I personally still have concerns about the long term plausibility of this tactical tweaking with current personnel, but at least a picture of the manager’s intentions is forming through the mists. This weekend’s stiffer challenge against Chelsea will give us a clearer picture of where we stand.