The flag often seen in the background at the Emirates Stadium proclaims: “In Arsène we trust!” A bold statement, but as Arsenal slump to nine points off the pace set at the top of the Premiership and Chelsea and Manchester United ease themselves away again, www.aboutaball.co.uk looks at whether Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger is as much the cause and solution to Arsenal’s problems.
The conundrum was perfectly summed up by Homer Simpson in one episode of The Simpsons when sat at Moe’s Tavern and about to start the umpteenth beer of the night he mulls: “Ahh beer…the cause and solution to all of life’s problems”. Perhaps if one subbed Arsène Wenger for beer, and despondent Gooners for Homer Simpson there might be quite a parallel today.
Right from the outset of this piece it should be pointed out that the recent success enjoyed by the club combined with the flamboyancy that Arsenal play with is entirely down to Arsène Wenger and the rest of his backroom staff, who have instilled a playing ethos that makes the club one of the most attractive in the world.
By almost any measure Arsène Wenger is one of the greatest managers that, not only Arsenal, but the entire English league has ever witnessed. Furthermore whilst recent silverware has been thin on the ground, Wenger’s overall record is still pretty decent: played 772, won 443, drawn 190 and lost 139, a winning percentage just under 60%, and less than one in five ending in defeat in all competitions.
Yesterday’s reverse against Chelsea was in many respects entirely unjust. Arsenal played the best football and dominated much of the match, something that is backed up by the stats in terms of possession, territorial advantage and attempts at goal. Which makes the 2-0 loss all the more difficult to stomach, especially amongst aesthetes of the game. Not that Chelsea won ugly, but Arsenal in many respects played the better football.
Nevertheless the result, which is ultimately what counts, rendered the excellent performance and the largely positive football somewhat meaningless. Having had a day to contemplate defeat perhaps Arsène Wenger would have approached things differently.
The sum of the parts
An attacking line of Theo Walcott, Andrei Arshavin and Sami Nasri is obviously lacking any sort of physical prowess. It’s a point that has been made countless times before, but Arsenal against Chelsea lacked any sort of cutting edge or presence in the opposition penalty area. This meant that any ball into the attacking line had to be absolutely perfect. Cesc Fabregas managed one such weighted pass, which Arshavin volleyed over in the first half, but asking the Spaniard to repeatedly attain such technical brilliance is too much.
The lack of an obvious centre-forward also meant that whilst each Chelsea player looked like they played with a shared sense of purpose, Arsenal seemed occasionally uncertain what they should be doing when in possession. Should the ball go to Fabregas in midfield, to Walcott down the right or instead up to Arshavin somewhere in the middle? Chelsea certainly didn’t lack for that thrust on their decisive counter-attack for the second goal, but somehow one sensed that Arsenal were never capable of springing such a move in reply.
The answer to Arsenal’s problems may have been closer to Arsène Wenger than he realised. Whilst Nicklas Bendtner may not be the most talented player in the squad, what he brings to the team in the absence of Robin van Persie or Eduardo is the willingness to show for the ball with his back to goal. Starting with the Danish forward would mean having to leave an arguably more talented player on the bench, but such is the lot of a Premiership football manager.
Fabio Capello has the courage to play Emile Heskey, despite the Aston Villa forward almost polemically dividing the English football watching public as to his effectiveness in the side. Nevertheless the Italian recognises that whilst Heskey might not be as talented as other strikers at his disposal, the role he performs in the team is no less valuable.
Arshavin has proved that he can make a worthwhile contribution to Arsenal, but not from a centre-forward’s position, a role for which he lacks either the bravery or the movement. John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho has the relatively straightforward task of keeping the former Zenit man in check, where they would have been far more troubled if he could have started from a wider position and attacked balls provided to him by the like of Bendtner.
Sticking to his guns
Wenger has so far stuck doggedly to his guns down the years refusing to adopt a more pragmatic approach to the beautiful game. It has brought Arsenal success by degrees, but in this age of power, so dramatically highlighted by both Chelsea and Manchester United in recent weeks, it may be time to consider a tactical tweak.
In truth, despite the concession of five goals to two of their direct title challengers, Arsenal aren’t that far behind their rivals. Whilst the nine point gap to Chelsea as we enter the final third of the season is probably insurmountable from Arsenal’s perspective there is no reason why they can’t start next season in excellent shape. That would require using the rest of this as an extended test starting each game with at least one dedicated centre-forward be that Bendtner, Eduardo or once fit van Persie, and making the acquisition of a top-quality striker a priority when the transfer window re-opens at the end of the season.
Arsène Wenger stated pre-season that he didn’t feel his Arsenal side were the perceived soft-touches that some thought, and yesterday’s excellent response to going an early goal down proved that. The Gunners have worked on their resilience in the face of adversity, but now must work on this aspect of their play.
If the Arsenal management team headed up by Wenger fail to acknowledge this need, then it may be a while before they are in any sort of position to challenge the duopoly of Chelsea and Manchester United.