Football does love a good cliche and ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ is a favoured one. Except in Arsenal’s case, that’s exactly what we should be doing. The stated aim of the club every year is Champions League football; we don’t want to win any trophies, just qualify for the feast at UEFA’s top table.
Chelsea’s 3 – 0 win last night pretty much confirmed what we already knew: the top four for this season is out of reach. We’re not good enough to scale that peak and you’d question whether we’re good enough to make progress in the Champions League as well. Everyone hopes we are; we’re the fodder for the elite clubs in the knockout stages; the team everyone wants to draw.
If that’s the aim, it’s no good bumbling along in the league and hoping for the best in Europe; our full attention must be on the Europa League. No second string XI’s, just the best XI we have available. The Premier League can look after itself and we’ll go all out to win the European trophy.
It’s not going to be easy; there are some pretty good teams in there and a few who can teach us a thing or two about defending. Most Sunday morning teams could teach us a thing or two about defending so I’m not sure it’s that great a claim.
Will Arsène dare to put the Premier League second on his list of priorities? Dare he not? It’s an intriguing position for a manager who put great store in the fourth-place trophy down the years. His highest aim now is the top six and I’m sure we’ll soon be regaled with tales of how we over-achieved by finishing fourth. This despite having the 9th most expensively assembled squad in Europe.
You’ll Never Wait So Long
One significant factor in that valuation is Alexandre Lacazette. It’s fair to say he’s endured an underwhelming goal return this season. Adjustment to a new league is never easy and a club in disarray makes the task all the harder. But players need to adapt. It’s not as if Lacazette didn’t have opportunities to score; he simply didn’t take them.
Ask him why and I doubt he knows. Arsène’s attitude toward him hardened when negotiations over Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang came to fruition: “I don’t reassure people. We are in a competitive world. “We have chosen a job where there is competition, you have to fight for your place.”
For a £52m man, the situation is bizarre and maybe unfathomable. Had Arsenal moved to sign a wide player who could score freely, then the move for PEA made sense. Now, it’s further evidence that there is no cohesive squad-building policy at Arsenal. PEA and Lacazette are not a duo who fit naturally together, even if Wenger were inclined to move toward a formation with two strikers.
We also have more problems defensively than up front. Yes, a lack of goals is an issue but barren runs end. At Arsenal, defenders don’t improve. Or the defensive unit doesn’t. Individually they might but in terms of how they play together, it is still reminiscent of a group of strangers.
Thierry Henry observed that Wenger struggles to spend big money on defenders. £35m on Mustafi wasn’t small change; it might be compared to a forward but defenders rarely command those fees. Van Dijk is the exception but also included Liverpool paying a significant financial penalty for the summer’s shenanigans.
We might not want to move in those circles but needed to address the issues we face at the back.
We Wait ’til Face Turns Blue
We certainly had the funds to spend but instead of landing key players quickly, we waited on Alexis as if it were the only game in town. Don’t tell me we didn’t have the money available. We’ve made a transfer profit of around £15-20m this season despite signing £108m-worth of strikers, so there’s that and the ‘war chest’ from last summer available to spend.
Had we the will to sign defenders, we were certainly in a position to do so. Failing that, we should be looking at the unit and training them almost as rigidly as George Graham did. Getting that tactical understanding right is vital. Where Wenger is a free spirit, Guardiola is quite prescriptive in what he expects of the team in midfield and defence. It’s only in the final third that his teams are given free reign, according to players whom he has coached.
That’s the missing link in Wenger’s sides. We focus on zonal marking and that’s your lot. If a player moves into your zone, that’s your man. If two get there, alarm bells ring and the ‘confused’ signs drop over defenders’ eyes.
It’s a conflict Wenger can’t resolve. He wants the attractive, free spirit football but forgets that the best sides have a strong defence which allows them to play freely further up the pitch. You can’t win trophies just by hoping to score three or four goals every game; there must be a solid base to build on.
If we had that, I wonder how much of a lack of confidence Alexandre Lacazette would be suffering?