“And here comes Alexis,” my father bellowed as we observed Arsenal’s acrimonious defeat at home to West Ham with equal parts dread and hangover.
The irony of the squad being almost completely healthy for once, but turning to an unfit Chilean to save the day against comfortably inferior opposition was palpable. But Alexis’ exclusion from the starting XI and subsequent salvage mission underlined something that’s become abundantly clear – this Arsenal squad makes no God damn sense.
Now, let’s be clear, that isn’t to say this isn’t a very talented collection of players. It’s very good, with quality options in almost every position (except defensive midfield, and maybe striker, depending on what you think of Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck), but I’ve yet to think of a formation and line-up that has the perfect balance of goalscoring ability, creative prowess, defensive bite, positional versatility and an appropriate mix of styles.
Arsenal built their 2nd half run of good form on the back of solidity at the back, balance in midfield and consistent goals from Giroud up front. As it stands, the defense still easily picks itself. Nacho Monreal has usurped Kieran Gibbs with his superior positional awareness and passing, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny are still one of the better center-back duos in the league (if not all of Europe) and Héctor Bellerín has shown he’s one of the most dangerous full-backs in the league and made the position his own. The defense is not a problem and picks itself.
The front-six is still a headscratcher, unfortunately. And it’s partially Arsene Wenger’s fault (in a good way). Santi Cazorla, having arrived in 2012 from Malaga as a full-fledged central attacking-midfielder, lost his preferred spot in the starting-XI to, the admittedly more talented, Mesut Özil. Cazorla’s been shunted out on the left (not good) on the right (better, but still not great), before finally cementing his spot in the middle. Questions were immediately raised about the 5’6″ Spaniards ability to deal with the brutish Matićs, Schneiderlins and Fernandinhos, but he’s coped spectacularly well using his A+ dribbling ability and low center of gravity. He rarely loses the ball, has just enough positional smarts to hold the middle and his passing from deep is a boon to the more forward players.
But Cazorla’s successful transition to a deeper position in midfield has disturbed the rest of the squad selection to a degree. Wenger plays his best players week-in, week-out, position be damned. Here are just some examples of players having their position adjusted under Wenger:
– Dennis Bergkamp played deeper
– Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie went from being a left-wingers to strikers
– Freddie Ljungberg came to Arsenal a central-midfielder, but departed a right-midfielder
– Kolo Toure converted to center-back from right-back
– Alex Song evolved from a center-back to a deep-lying playmaker (somehow)
– Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere have both been played all over the park
Some of these position changes were down to necessity, others were by choice, but a consistent theme is Wenger’s affinity for “little bit” versatility. Oh, Thomas Vermaelen is left-footed and kinda fast? Emergency left-back it is! *disaster ensues*
But now Wenger has an issue because he has too many “undroppable” players and not enough positions to suit them all. So, Alexis Sanchez gets his favoured LW spot, Özil gets to dictate in the middle, Giroud is up-front screaming at the sky after a miss, Cazorla is doing interpretive dances to confuse his opponents and Coquelin is next to him, tackling unsuspecting overdribblers with aplomb. And then…Ramsey gets to play on the right? Wait a minute…
See? It doesn’t fit. Obviously Wenger should play Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Theo Walcott on the right! But who do you drop? You definitely can’t drop Özil or Alexis, and Cazorla and Ramsey are pretty damn good too. What about Coquelin (Just going on the record, I am not a member of the Cult of Coq)? Maybe, but can you play Ramsey/Cazorla deep in midfield? That remains to be seen.
What about playing 4-3-3, not 4-2-3-1? That’s possible, but then Ozil is on the wing, and while still effective (Özil could play at left-back and still create several chances), playing the most-expensive player on your squad out-of-position is a somewhat untenable adjustment. 4-3-1-2? Sure, that might make sense in a game of FIFA15, but width becomes an issue and a narrow attack detracts from your stars no matter what. Drop Giroud? Sure, there are times when Walcott might be preferred (and he makes more sense as a target for Özil/Alexis), but that still doesn’t resolve the larger issue.
The main issue with playing Ramesy on the right is it sacrifices too much offense. Ramsey doesn’t have the turn of pace or natural crossing ability from wide to boost the overall quality of the offence. He will still get his goals (he always does), but it bogs down the rest of the attack. Playing Walcott on the right is a perfectly acceptable solution, but that requires dropping one of Cazorla or Ramsey, and that’s a very difficult decision to make because Ramsey is the team’s complete midfielder and Cazorla was possibly the 2nd best player on the team last season. We also saw against West Ham that Ramsey and Coquelin are a poor fit because Ramsey, while a jack of all trades, cannot compensate for Coquelin’s lacking offence and passing like Cazorla can.
When you get down to it, it’s a numbers game. Arsenal are simply better with two natural wideman that provide speed and incision. Alexis is one (on the left), but it can’t be Ramsey, or Cazorla for that matter, on the right.
Arsenal with 2 natural wide players:
14 wins, 1 loss, 3 draws
44 goals for, 16 goals against
Arsenal with 1 natural wide player and 1 non-wide player:
That’s quite damning, but needs some context. Arsenal scored some big wins using the latter formation (4-1 vs. Liverpool stands out), but results like the 2-2 draw against Hull City, 2-1 loss to Manchester United, 1-0 loss to Swansea and 0-0 draw against Sunderland should all have been comfortable victories. Bad luck, questionable refereeing decisions and historically poor finishing converged to steal 10 points away from Arsenal.
But the overall point stands. Arsenal become too blunt and predictable with so many creators. This became doubly problematic with no Héctor Bellerín to comensate for the lack of width against West Ham. Arsenal still got off 22 shots (while only conceding 8), but the quality of these chances tended to be OK at best. Oxlade-Chamberlain, try as he might, made the right-side of the pitch his own, but until the quality of his passing/delivery matches his prodigious dribbling, he won’t make a huge difference…let alone when he’s losing the ball on the edge of his own box.
Arsenal are probably better with two wide players, ideally one that’s better on the ball (Alexis) and another that is more comfortable off the ball (Walcott). It creates more space for the likes of Giroud and Özil to operate in the middle and gives Cazorla more outlets. It also makes the middle of the park less dense, which is helpful for a player like Coquelin.
So, how can this be resolved?
I have a three-pronged solution:
1. Wenger has to start either Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain or Welbeck on the right
– Walcott wants to play striker, Oxlade-Chamberlain has yet to earn the right to start consistently (to me at least, some people seem convinced his dribbling alone warrants it) and Welbeck’s lack of goalscoring seems to upset people, despite his many other laudable qualities. Walcott or Welbeck should do nicely, regardless.
2. This means one of Cazorla or Ramsey must be dropped
– Which is almost an impossible decision to make. Ramsey has been spectacular when fit and Cazorla made the position his own last season, but this is for the greater good (who’s seen Hot Fuzz)?
3. Time to upgrade Coquelin
– This dovetails with the necessity of dropping one of Ramsey or Cazorla. The reason being that Arsenal with Coquelin in midfield are essentially a man down on offense. That puts too much pressure on the rest of the front-six. Also, Coquelin seems to only make sense next to Cazorla (Ramsey was unable to cope under pressure, having been dispossessed 5 times versus West Ham). One injury to the young Frenchman and the team would have to revert to Mikel Arteta or *gulp* Mathieu Flamini. If you mention Jack Wilshere as an option, you may leave these (virtual) premises.
Fact of the matter is, for all of Coquelin’s industry and tenacity, he is a liability when Arsenal have the ball. You don’t have to score goals like Michael Ballack or float perfectly chipped throughballs like Andrea Pirlo, but you have to pose at least a modicum of a threat if you’re going to keep the defense honest. Literally every Arsenal possession is stifled to a degree because Coquelin will stand 40-yards from goal, leaving the other five forward players to make due (another reason why Bellerín was missed, Arsenal simply lacked competent attacking players going forward, sorry Debuhcy).
Who should we buy? That Schneiderlin guy would’ve been ideal, and would’ve hurt not one, but TWO! direct rivals (Southampton and United) [Editor’s note: Are Southampton really a direct rival? Hmm.], but alas that ship has sailed. His blend of Beyond Schneiderlin, there is no obvious target, though the truth is Arsene rarely goes for the obvious (the obvious players, like Michu and Mo Diame!).
What, no Karim Benzema? Benzema would be a wonderful signing and a clear improvement on Giroud, but he doesn’t quite “solve” anything. Arsenal’s issue’s don’t really involve Giroud, whatever his perceived limitations may be.
Now the question is will Wenger stick with the current formation, or will he find it in him to make these necessary changes? Only time will tell.