The Hamburg win has thrown into wider debate the tactical formation that Arsene is using this season, a more pronounced 4-5-1 than in previous seasons but with more fluidity in positional play. The reason behind this will no doubt be the personnel available; losing Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp at the same time left two large holes to fill even if they were being slowly reduced in their playing time through a combination of age and injury but the loss of Jose Antonio Reyes as well has deprived Wenger of another attacking option that he had been utilising.
The move to The Emirates from the confines of Highbury gave the team more space upon which to weave their patterns of play. It cries out for width; the team needs wide players, not necessarily two genuine wingers but those who will receive the ball and keep wide to stretch opponents to the full. To be fair to the team, the fullbacks this season have provided that support, Eboue more than happy to get his head down to obtain a suitable position from which to cross. The end result in the Sheffield United and Porto games was to find Henry’s head putting the ball in the back of the net. But for all of this, there is still a tendency to drift inside, to try to pass the ball into the net which is fine when you have a back four that is unco-ordinated – Liverpool were very obliging for Flamini’s goal – or a forward who is on fire and able to run the line. However, at this moment in time Thierry Henry is not on fire, something that can applied to the other forwards at the club equally, which is where the problems are beginning to show through. Having relied on the mercurial Frenchman for goals in the past, without them the team is struggling to score more than one at home when faced with the massed ranks of midfield and defence. Yet The Emirates should not be causing this to happen, the dimensions should mean more space but with opponents more than content to sit behind the ball that space is now at a premium.
The late goals came on Tuesday as a result of a change in personnel and playing style. Theo Walcott’s directness in running with the ball opening up the Hamburg defence by causing two or three players to be attracted to the ball, more space in the middle for the attackers. The hyperbole has started again; the clamour for more playing time for the lad growing. Will he make a noticeable difference domestically? Time will answer that. What is apparent though is that the switch to a more 4-4-2 based formation paid dividends. Granted that this was partially based on the need to win following Porto’s victory in Moscow but it also would have happened as the three points were vital irrespective of that result. The directness of the formation and the introduction of a direct player made the world of difference. There is little doubt that those thoughts have crossed Arsene’s mind.
It seems that Arsene is keen to play with one formation that can be adapted to both home and away matches. This is not a problem in theory but at home it is leaving Henry to run the line, playing against four defenders, isolated whilst attacks build from midfield. In previous years, his mobility has rendered this irrelevant. This time round though he is covering a lot of ground but not to the same effect. Which is highlighting the teams fundamental problem: without his goals who is going to score from the formation employed?
van Persie is playing wide left but at his current rate he will contribute about fifteen goals in all competitions. After that, there is no-one vaguely threatening to score more than seven or eight and that is of concern. For all of the undoubted skill and technical ability in the midfield, none of them are consistent goalscorers. Poor old Alex Hleb has some of the best close control of the ball seen in the clubs history but put him in front of goal and his shooting becomes almost Jensen-esque. Yet when he does get it right, you are left wondering why the hell the ball does not leave his boot for the back of the net more often, jis finsh against Porto was as clinical as any hardened centre forward. Cesc Fabregas was top scorer at the World Youth Cup a couple of seasons ago but the step up in playing abilities has found his shooting boots left on the touchline for sustained periods of time. As for Tomas Rosicky, well he will replay the miss against CSKA in his mind until his dying day believing that he will score the next time he viualises it. If those four could contribute the fifteen goals each that their prodigous talents deserve, the main problem would be solved without even including Baptista, the one of them that has a proven goalscoring record, albeit in a smaller team in a different league.
Walcott’s inclusion will come at a price; the exclusion of someone else. From a five man midfield someone has to go. My own view is that Hleb or van Persie will make way. Fabregas is running matches more often than not, passing to set free colleagues seemingly at will. Walcott is at the moment a wide player in Wenger’s eyes; his true potential is in the centre, his age and physique counting against him playing there for the moment. I do not think for one minute that Walcott is going to be starting every game. Rotating with Hleb seems to be favourite at the moment but the inclusion of Walcott at The Emirates has to be given serious consideration. At the moment he is being used as an impact player, a second half substitute to break down tiring opponents but for how much longer? Well, for one I think it is likely to be for the rest of this season at least. Walcott may have the potential to be a great player but at the moment, Arsene has a policy that works for him just needing to tweak the tactics.