There were two things we learned from the Stoke defeat last weekend. When everything goes to plan, Arsenal can play exceptional football. But when something very slightly alters that plan, everything falls apart.
A starting XI of Petr Cech in goal, Sead Kolasinac and Hector Bellerin as wing-backs, three centre-backs, Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey in centre-midfield, then Alex Lacazette, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil as a front three is a theoretical team that has far more threats than faults.
Is it perfect? No. But we have a manager that will always try to win a match 3-1 instead of 1-0, and as much as we want to think that football is purely a result-based industry, a club should always try to entertain the people paying to watch the game as well as trying to win it.
But the problem at the moment doesn’t lie with Arsenal trying to win ‘the right way’, it lies with the manager not being able to adapt that plan for occasions when one of the aforementioned players isn’t available, or when he feels the need to shoehorn a player into the side.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is a terrific prospect who, if given a significant run of games, could become a real asset for Arsenal. But that sentence could’ve been written in each of the last six years since his arrival from Southampton. If you think the Ox is a valuable asset who Arsenal should try to retain, that’s fair. But consider the following:
He has made it very clear, both publicly and recently, that he sees himself as a centre midfielder in the future. Considering how much we rave about how good he was in that role against AC Milan five and a half years ago, it should be no surprise to hear him echo those thoughts.
So how, if you believe him to be as valuable as Wenger believes him to be, is playing him at wing-back a good way of showing him how his future lies at Arsenal?
The intention may be to demonstrate to the Ox that he’s so valued at the club, Arsenal will try to shoehorn him in anywhere on the field because they need him to win. But all you’re actually demonstrating is how unwilling you are to play him where he wants to play in the first place.
If you want to keep the 24-year-old, and he says he wants to play centre midfield, then you have to play him there. Anything else is just a fudge. Anything else is going to be interpreted by the Englishman as a lack of faith in his ability and a reason to leave.
Since the beginning of the season, he’s started all three games, and at no point during any of those games did he play at centre-midfield. So is it any surprise to hear that he’s told the manager he wants to leave?
But the biggest problem from all of this contractual manoeuvring has been the way it’s messed up the original plan for how the team should line up. It’s one thing to have one player out of position due to injury or suspension, but Arsenal played a back five at Stoke with only one player in their natural position.
Even against a team as limited in attack as the Potters were, Arsenal were always bound to be vulnerable and guilty of making elementary mistakes, simply because of how inexperienced our team operating in makeshift roles.
If Arsenal had only one fit centre back, then playing just one centre back would, of course, have an excuse, But the Gunners had at least three; Shkodran Mustafi started, while Per Mertesacker and Rob Holding didn’t. Instead, Nacho Monreal played, which is fine as he’s got some experience in the position.
But Kolasinac has been brought into the club to play at left wing-back and his good form so far has made him indispensable early on. But he couldn’t play at left wing-back at Stoke because our best right-back was playing there, so he played as a centre-back.
Why was our best right-back playing at left-back? Because we don’t want to sell Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, that’s why. We’ve been here before, when we played Theo Walcott at striker in an attempt to convince him to accept £140,000 a week (sign da ting) only to quickly return him to the right wing or have him on the bench when he signed on the dotted line.
If that’s the plan here, to convince a squad player that he’s more than a squad player, only to then use him as a squad player once he extends his contract, then is it worth disrupting the whole defence in order to keep a squad player?
The answer is no. Arsenal have a huge game this weekend away to Liverpool, against probably the most dangerous attack we’ll face all season. Anfield away is not the place to messing around with wingers at wing-back and full-backs at centre back.
Even with Koscielny coming back from suspension, I don’t have much faith in Arsenal keeping a clean sheet, but much of that is down to Liverpool’s forward line being as quick as the speed of light. We need our best players playing in their best positions in order to get something on Sunday.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s future can wait. If he wants to stay, he’ll stay. If not, let him play at right back for Chelsea instead. But Arsenal went into this season with a plan on how they wanted to play, they need to stick to it.