After Wednesday’s tepid 0-0 draw at West Ham, Arsenal find themselves in a rather precarious position.
Due to their rivals’ inability to put a good run of form together, Arsenal are only one point behind fourth-placed Tottenham, with Liverpool on the same terms and Chelsea five points clear.
Arsenal’s away record in the Premier League can be compared to the sound of a German reveller at Oktoberfest finding out that there’s no beer left; nothing but nines.
Ninth in the league, nine points from nine games and nine goals scored. There’s a joke to be made about Arsenal being in a 999 emergency situation, but everything about the Londoners is so predictable at the moment, there’s probably an ambulance outside the Emirates now because so many people are making the same joke.
The two wins aren’t bad wins, one at high-flying Burnley, and the other was such a dismembering of Everton that it got Ronald Koeman the sack. The draw at Chelsea was decent. But the other six games? Losses at Anfield and the Etihad Stadium are somewhat palatable, but losses at Watford and Stoke certainly aren’t.
Draws at Southampton and West Ham can be forgivable when Arsenal are in the ascendancy in those games and thwarted by a dogged home side. But in the last four days, Arsenal have looked as devoid of attacking threat as they have ever been under Arsene Wenger. There’s plenty of attacking intent, but zero threat. Why?
Well, we have to go back to Arsenal’s rationale of implementing a five-man back-line in the first place to work out the problem. Wenger’s men were being over-exposed on the counter attack so often, that an extra body at the back was needed to give cover for those who constantly bombed up the pitch.
So, Arsenal started lining up like this;
In theory, this works fine. If the centre midfielders are defensively sound, the wing-backs are energizer bunnies and the front three can create chances from any situation, then you’ve got a base to build on. But over time, bad habits started to set in, habits that were never discouraged and are now suffocating the team.
The most obvious one involves everyone’s favourite Chilean. We all know how devastating Alexis Sanchez can be when he’s given time and space. When he’s put in a system that accentuates his talents, there are few better match-winners in the world. When Arsenal moved him to the striker position last season, he was unmarkable for four months, simply because you never knew where he was going to pop up next.
Sometimes he’d be on the edge of the box, twenty seconds later he was on the left wing and thirty seconds after that he’d be wide right. Defenders couldn’t mark him, so they just held their line in front of him, which gave the likes of Mesut Özil all the time he needed to pick out someone else.
But when Arsenal moved to the formation above, Alexis was not played as the central forward, but as the supposed wide left forward. The intention was to give Alexis as many opportunities as possible to cut inside on his right foot and create something from nothing.
This would be fine if he was given the chance to try something else from time to time. But any time Arsenal attack, because Wenger wants as many players involved in the attacking phases as possible, they end up like this;
Given his desire to do something every time he gets the ball, he often ends up trying beat more than one defender to create a chance or shooting opportunity for himself.
The first problem with this is that the world and his dog knows Alexis will always cut inside. The second problem is that Alexis will know this too, but will try anyway, because he knows he’s good enough to pull it off.
But when he’s not on top form, he loses possession at an enormous rate, because even though he’ll have run into a brick wall on twenty occasions, nothing’s going to stop him trying to knock it down the 21st time.
None of that is a problem if Alexis draws the defence towards him and away from others. But because everyone is so close to each other, the defence can do what Arsenal’s defence does in big away games; stand on the edge of their own penalty box and watch the ball be passed around in front of them for ninety minutes.
Wenger tried to address this at West Ham by moving back to 4-2-3-1 and spreading the team out to create more room. He actually ended up compounded the problem by playing the right-footed Ainsley Maitland-Niles at left-back and Alex Iwobi on the right wing.
Both took it upon themselves to come inside at every opportunity, leaving Arsenal looking like this;
Once again, Arsenal’s front-line is overloaded, with everyone standing still waiting for someone to do something special. Every time Alexis dropped back to try and create from deep, he had both Özil and Jack Wilshere standing ten yards beside him.
Every time he pushed further forward, he had Olivier Giroud coming towards him trying to play a 1-2, which only managed to bring Giroud’s marker closer to Alexis, thus forcing him to cut inside to find space.
That space wasn’t there because the supposed right winger was also showing for the ball in the middle, bringing his marker into the fray as well. Too many chefs, and all that.
Is this fixable? Absolutely. If 4-2-3-1 is going to be used more often, then expect to see Theo Walcott back as he’s the only natural right winger at the club. Danny Welbeck may be a willing runner on the wing, but that’s about it.
Maitland-Niles is the same at left-back, but if Alexis is playing left-wing then a left-back who’s a credible threat with his left foot is a necessity, just so it spreads out the defence a little bit more.
As encouraging as it was to see Wilshere play 90 minutes, we have to see him do it a few more times this month before wondering if he’d do a worse job of helping the defence than Xhaka.
It used to be that Arsenal had one way of playing, and we’d lament the lack of a Plan B. Now, they have multiple ways of playing, but can’t figure out who to play in which system.
It took them until April last year to figure it out, and we lost out on Champions League football as result. They can ill-afford to make that same mistake twice, and the clock is most definitely ticking.