In the last two games, Arsenal have shown that they have the strongest squad in the Premier League, and that they have two distinct formulas available to them that they can use can get results in almost any circumstance.
The problem, is that Arsene Wenger wants to use both of them at the same time.
The first of the two options is to play three quick forwards, with Alexis as the central striker, and give Mesut Özil as many passing options as is physically possible, then press high up the pitch with that quick front line and force the opposition into losing the ball close to goal. All the midfield has to worry about is getting the ball to Özil as often as possible. It’s not rocket science, but it’s effective.
At Old Trafford last Saturday, we saw the more conservative of the two options available.
Two defensive-minded midfielders to shield the back four, and Aaron Ramsey deployed on the left wing to try and aid ball retention whenever Arsenal were on the attack. For 70 mins it worked, until Juan Mata found some room on the edge of the box and scored. It’s at this point when Arsenal’s strength on the bench made its mark, with two substitutes combining to get the equaliser.
Having two distinct ways of approaching a game is a huge advantage, as it leaves the opponent trying to prepare for something that they may not face in the game, depending on the way Arsenal sets up. Arsenal’s ability to change the way they attack with a single sub, that being Olivier Giroud, is something no other top Premier League side has, because of Alexis’ ability to play out wide.
But as we saw against PSG on Wednesday, it’s when neither of these tactics are implemented in full, that Arsenal start to falter. Wanting to reward Giroud for his performance at the weekend is fine, but he succeeded because Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain beat the left back and whipped in a brilliant cross that Giroud couldn’t miss.
Giroud is best served when he gets quick service, and has runners bombing past him for him to the lay the ball off to. With Alexis, Ramsey and Özil consistently dropping deep to collect the ball, and Alex Iwobi standing out on the left as nothing more an outlet pass, Giroud was as isolated as a Daily Mail reader at a MENSA convention.
Being alone up front is fine if you have the ability to move off the ball like Edinson Cavani does, constantly standing off the shoulder of the last defender back and making runs all game long, but Giroud stands in the middle of the field and waits for the ball to come to him. That’s fine when there’s five minutes to go and you’re trying to get the ball into the box through any means possible, but when there’s plenty of time on the clock, the lack of movement just causes everything to slow down and become far easier to defend.
It’s not just the selection of Giroud that causes Arsenal to misfire so much.
Francis Coquelin’s defensive work has been more than ok this season, but his inability to get involved offensively is hampering Arsenal’s offensive play so much now that he’s almost unpickable. The knock-on effect from Coquelin’s poor passing skills is too much of a disadvantage to purposely inflict on yourself, unless the aim is to completely strangle the opposition of any attacking play and settle for a 0-0. Away to Manchester United is a perfectly acceptable time to deploy such a tactic.
At home to PSG, when the opponents are missing their two best attacking midfielders? Not so much.
If the gameplan is to get Özil the ball as much as possible, then either Santi Cazorla or Granit Xhaka have to play, because they both are excellent at dictating tempo, leaving Özil to find space to work in. If the gameplan is to get the ball up to Giroud as often as possible, then Aaron Ramsey has to play through the middle, because he’s the best player Arsenal have at covering the ground Giroud leaves behind him.
With Ramsey running all over the shop, someone has to sit in the middle of the field and keep the ball moving efficiently. Ramsey is good enough defensively for there to be no need for a purely defensive midfielder to play beside him, but he does need someone to feed him the ball, just like Joe Allen does for Wales. Coquelin can’t do that. Mohammed Elneny might be able to, given a chance to. Xhaka definitely can.
For Arsenal to break out of their current run of misfiring performances, Wenger needs to bite the bullet and commit to a game plan wholeheartedly, and not try to hedge his bets. With Cazorla’s Achilles turning into dust, now is the time to trust Granit Xhaka.
If they didn’t think he was capable of playing as the most defensive-minded midfielder in the team, then they’ve wasted £35m.
Playing Xhaka solves two problems in one.
If Arsenal play Iwobi, Alexis and Walcott up front, Xhaka will find them from deep all day. If Arsenal play Alexis, Giroud and Walcott/Oxlade-Chamberlain up front, Xhaka can just knock the ball around at will whilst Ramsey roams free.
It’s a simple solution to a complicated problem.
There’s only way to find out, Arsene.