Three at the back. Three games. Three wins. Does this mean Arsenal are back on track?
As much of a confidence booster that the last few games have been for everyone involved at Arsenal, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that they’ve been the recipient of some rather fortunate incidents, rather than be the creators of their own fate.
Just take the FA Cup semi final against Manchester City, for example.
It’s widely accepted that Rob Holding and Gabriel had their best games in an Arsenal shirt that day, and that Alex Oxlade–Chamberlain is a revelation at right wing–back. But for the first 20 minutes of that game, David Silva was tearing our back five to shreds, even so much as to win a header six yards out from goal. Then he took a knee to the thigh and limped off with a dead leg. After that, City only really threatened when Yaya Toure had possession, thanks to his inane ability to ghost past tacklers at walking pace.
As encouraging as it was to see the players fight back from a goal down, and then finish the job in extra time to boot, it’s hard to feel too optimistic about the future when it took both Silva, and then Sergio Aguero, going off injured for Arsenal to get back into the game in the first place.
It was a day where the result was paramount, and anything else was a bonus.
Then there was Wednesday night against Leicester.
A game where Alexis Sanchez and Francis Coquelin treated the ball as if it were a hand grenade coated in Marmite. They looked far more comfortable in possession than in previous games, but as soon as half an opportunity arose, the ball would find its way to Alexis or Coquelin and then veer straight into the direction of a defender.
Again, just like in the game against City, there were plenty of positives to take from the Leicester match. Nacho Monreal did a fine impression of Cesar Azpilicueta as a left back who can play as the left centre back of a back three.
Granit Xhaka is finally, maybe, hopefully getting to grips with the pace of English football and realising that as well as sitting in the centre circle admiring his long passes to the wing backs, he has to get forward and back with greater urgency than he has shown in the past.
But how is it possible to be sure of Arsenal being back to something approaching their best form when the following statements are true:
- After the 3–0 loss at Crystal Palace, Nacho Monreal had played 163 games for Arsenal, and scored two goals.
- Nacho Monreal has taken two shots on goal in the last two games. Both of them have led to goals.
As much as I want to be optimistic about Arsenal’s chances of somehow going on a run of wins and maybe, just maybe, squeaking into the top four by the skin of their teeth, it’s hard to shake the feeling that over the last couple of games, Arsenal have been fortunate to win matches, rather than deserving.
Whether it’s been Silva’s injury, or a shot hitting Robert Huth square in the chest and somehow finding the bottom corner of the goal, there are more reasons outside of Arsenal’s control that have led to their recent success, than inside.
We need a far larger sample size of evidence in order to work out just how well moving to three at the back has changed the way Arsenal approach games. Playing Monreal as a centre back will always leave the option of reverting to a back four open, which is nice, but for the 20 minutes that Arsenal did this against Leicester, there were the same issues of miscommunication and lack of concentration that gave Leicester three or four opportunities to score after Arsenal had gone ahead.
With three at the back, Arsenal looked far more capable of pulling Leicester’s defence out of position just by having the extra width that wing backs provides. With someone in centre midfield with the ability to do more than just stand still and gift possession to the opposition, they would have created far more than they managed. If someone just runs into the space that Alexis vacates when he comes deep looking for the ball, then it’s almost un–defendable.
There’s definitely some positives to work on, but do Arsenal have the time to work on them?
Their next four games are four of the worst games you would want to play whilst trying to adapt to a new system; the last ever North London derby at White Hart Lane, Manchester United and a manager who has shown lately that his ability to nullify his opponents’ strength is still very much undiminished, followed by away trips to Southampton and Stoke, two teams who have both given us fits when we turn up lacking form.
Arsenal have had to rely on lady luck to get them through the last couple of games, but they won’t have that luxury over the next couple of weeks.
Either Arsene Wenger has found a way to finally get the best out of this group of players, or he found a way to paper over the cracks and it doesn’t work.
I’d much rather be lucky than good, but for the next month, lucky won’t be enough.