For those of us who remember the final seasons of George Graham’s reign, that question is enough to bring a cold shiver to the spine. Two or three seasons of total mundanity, nobody can remember the FA and League Cup finals of 1993 with any fondness other than two more trophies were put into storage in the Trophy Cabinet at Highbury. The utter predictability of getting the ball, passing long to Smith or Wright to latch onto were too terrible to bear at times. A regular criticism from without and within was that Arsenal were boring and predictable. Fast forward a decade or so, drop the boring aspect but ask the same question, are Arsenal too predictable? The answer to that has to be a qualified “Yes”.
The entertainment value of this side, indeed of all Wenger’s teams, is the one thing that leads to the qualification of the answer. Nobody can accuse them of being consistently bereft of ideas and invention in the manner that their predecessors appeared to be, and a lot of the time were. However, the tactical formation used at home and away is predictable. And with that, future opponents are able to counteract Arsenal, nullifying the threat of Henry, van Persie, Fabregas, Rosicky and co.
The results over the last season and a quarter bear witness to this. At home, rarely in danger of losing, the team has struggled to break down three teams who have to be despatched if a realistic challenge to the title is to be made. The 4-4-2 that Wenger likes for these games fluctuates in the game between that, 4-3-3 and 4-5-1. All of which are simple to nullify with a defensive 4-5-1 formation, provided your players understand what is required of them and hold their positions within that formation. Proof is there in the League this season with Middlesbrough, Aston Villa and Everton all holding on for a point. Sure some of those results being attained are due to a poor finishing, bad luck, poor refereeing decisions or any combination of those three. But it does not disguise the fact that those teams set themselves out to gain a point, or nick a win, and all walked away with draws, objective achieved. CSKA to a lesser extent did so in Europe but won the home game through exactly this tactic. Less able teams are put to the sword, clinically in the cases of Porto, Watford and Sheffield United.
Away from home, the tactics remain the same albeit more cautious; hard to believe with the win at the Madejski. Reading proved how beneficial such formations can be when coupled with an early goal. Yet Manchester City and West Ham have won all three points with undoubtedly less talented individuals proving that sum of the parts is greater than the individual elements.
And West Ham have backed up the theory further with their midfield set up for the first hour. During that time, they ceded considerable possession to Arsenal, just as Everton and CSKA had the previous week. Yet, the defensive capabilities of Reo-Coker, Mullins and Bowyer were such that 90% of the time that an Arsenal player got within thirty yards of goal, they had two or more West Ham players for company.
On the one occasion they have visited their peers, this formation worked. Manchester United so confident in their own abilities that they felt able to compete without any adaptation of their own tactics. You can bet that Benitez, Jol and Mourinho in the coming weeks will not be so accommodating. All three teams will pack the midfield and hassle and harry the Arsenal player in possession.
This has been a signature theme for Wenger’s decade at the helm. Prior to last season, it had been Europe that was his Achilles Heel, unable to adapt the tactics which were so effective at home to the battlegrounds of the Continent. Now the coin has flipped. Domestically, he is unable to successfully adapt the formation to secure victories in the battlegrounds of the East End or North West.
I am not advocating a change in manager or a wholesale change in personnel. In the same way that Sven Goran Eriksson was criticised for a lack of plan B, Wenger is open to the same comments. Throughout his reign, there has been a single-minded pursuit of footballing perfection, a noble cause to believe in and his strength of character in this respect is one of the reasons the club have been successful in the last decade. One thing his teams have never done nor been able to do is play ugly football. There have been occasions when they have been overtly defensive but never ugly in pursuit of a result. Perhaps this is one thing they do need to encompass if they are to be Champions again?
The personnel are also part of the problem. Fabregas is a fine talent, with a huge future ahead of him. But he needs support. He needs guidance from more experienced heads if he is to fulfil his destiny. He requires protection from his manager, resting him is the only action he can take. This could make the side less predictable in terms of how they play. At the moment, it is safe to say that a Rocket Scientist is not required to work out that stopping Fabregas cuts off a major supply route to Henry, rendering the Captain impotent or forcing him to come deeper to get the ball. Remove one and curtail the other, two major thorns in an opponent’s side removed with only van Persie as a goal threat. Despite the talent available, this is a side that does not score from every angle with all players chipping in. Fundamentally, most goals will come from Henry, following on will be van Persie or Adebayour. After those, if anyone gets to five then it is a major result. If one of those three does not fire on all cylinders then the team is in trouble. At the moment it is Henry, the reason unfathomable. However, he is not too nice – so what if he has a joke before a game? – but he is too distant from the action a lot of the time to be Captain. He has to make a point of running back into midfield to get a message to them or cajole them. As for the defence, forget it. To be effective as a Captain, he needs to be more in midfield. I have long held the belief that forwards do not make good Captains; for what reason they fail, I know not but it could something to do with the selfishness required for the striker cannot be switched on and off; a captain is required to be selfless on the pitch as well. The squads’ depth is an improvement on last season but there is still a lack of depth, particularly up front, that raises a number of concerns. The financial constraints of the new stadium are still being felt; in order to rest Henry, Wenger needs another proven goalscorer something that is lacking. Perhaps in twelve months time, Bendtner, Lupoli or Stokes will have sufficient experience from their loan spells but even so they will not be proven at Premiership level.