The weekend’s result at Bolton has certainly brought forth strong opinions on the state of play within the Arsenal community. Mine are well known to the regular readers of this blog; simply put a comfortable third would be an acceptable improvement on last season. But why is the bar raised so high by others? Why do people believe this team should challenge for the title this season? Three words: Paris, May 2006. In reaching the Champions League final, Arsene created a millstone around his neck for the coming season. That the team exceeded expectations is to a certain extent forgotten when talking about the current campaign. Indeed even during 2005-06 nobody seriously believed Arsenal were contenders until a substandard Real Madrid were dumped out en route to the final. Yet the domestic form gave no indication that a title challenge was about to spring forth this season. But that is typical of the history of Arsenal Football Club. Prior to Wenger’s arrival, the title tended to come as a bolt from the blue, the only exceptions being the team of the 1930’s.
So with this season a quarter of the way through why are so many of us, including the manager, publicly throwing the towel at such an early stage? From his point of view, what is said privately and publicly may well be two different things. In stating that the title is gone he has dampened the spirits of the supporters but has removed the pressure from the players, or so the theory goes, in that now that they are not expecting to be mentioned as title contenders in the media. Whether this works or not is an unprovable point; the media can be manipulate but to be quite honest as they set the rules, it is not a ruse that works in the long run.
Its fair to say that the season probably has not gone as Wenger would have anticipated before it began. Back in July, if you could have pinned him down to a prediction of where he expected the team to be in November, my guess is that he would have settled for third in the Premiership within two or three points of the leaders and already qualified for the second round of the Champions League. Well, we’re not: Sixth place, thirteen points off the pace – albeit with a game in hand – and one bad performance away from the UEFA Cup. The question is what has gone wrong and unfortunately there is not one single answer, no one thing to change that would make a difference.
The first problem has been the dropping of eight points at home. By now it would be a reasonable expectation to have dropped maybe four at most. Looking at the opposition few would have predicted that Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, Everton and Newcastle would have walked away with a share of the spoils. Perhaps Villa or Everton but not the other two. The opening day result could be put down to new surroundings but it is not a theory to which I subscribe. In order to get the players used to the stadium, surely the team have been training there at least twice a week. I know there is a world of difference between a full and an empty stadium but even so training on the pitch would enable them to get used to the dimensions, the surroundings and whatever else it is that they want to get used to. Given Arsene’s meticulous approach to London Colney and setting out pitches to the exact measurements of opponents grounds, this would have crossed his mind. So why do I not believe that they have carried out this routine?
However, this is almost a superfluous argument, one that shies away from tackling the real issues, namely those that surround the squad and the tactics employed. Before I go any further, I will state right here and now: Arsene Wenger is the best candidate to be manager of Arsenal Football Club. The personnel he has at his disposal have the potential to become the best side in the clubs history, which you have to admit is a big statement to make when you consider the teams that have gone before them. And I believe that they will achieve that potential with him at the helm.
But, and it is a big but, there are some serious shortcomings in both the players and the way they play at the moment. The most basic problem is the lack of concentration and confidence in defence. The team are conceding first all of the time. Well, OK, that is an exaggeration but it is not far from the truth. My count is seven out of thirteen league games and three out of seven Champions League games. That is pretty painful reading; indicative of a serious problem, one that I am beginning to believe is as much an issue with belief as it is with concentration. The answer to that requires a little bit of further digging. To my mind, in the league five of the seven were avoidable in that it was lax marking or an error of judgement allowing the opposition to score. That is a high percentage and one that cannot be purely put down to the inexperience of the players. At Manchester City it was a Hoyte error that led to the goal but you have the potential for that to happen before you even step on the pitch putting a right back on the left side of defence. Wenger may have got away with it last season with the injuries to Cole and Clichy but his luck has eluded him thus far in 2006-07. However that is but one game. Too often, opponents have been left with time and space to punish Arsenal and they have done so. With the defence on call, this should not be happening so regularly. Gallas and Toure are two of the most experienced centre halves in the Premiership and should be able to deal with any problems. The fullbacks are young and inexperienced. It seems hard to believe but Eboue has yet to chalk up fifty starts for the club and neither has Clichy. But both like to attack and this leaves gaps to be exploited. It also puts pressure on the midfield to protect the back four, something that is patently not happening this season.
The reason for the lack of cover is not lack of effort. It is simply lack of collective defensive nous in the middle of the field. Whilst Gilberto is good at patrolling just ahead of the back four, his style of play is not that of tenacious tackler. He prefers to intercept with either a well – timed reading of a pass or removing the ball from his opponents control whilst they are in full flight. And make no mistake, he is good at this aspect of his game. Since his arrival he has been an unsung hero for the team and do not forget he has a World Cup Winners medal to boot so he must be doing something right. However, he is exposed by the balance of the midfield; it is geared to attack. Hleb, van Persie, Rosicky, Fabregas, Walcott, Baptista: all noted for their attacking displays. Of that list, Baptista started his career as a defensive midfielder so has that awareness and the Hleb/Eboue partnership on the right seems to work well. This weekend there have been comments about how we never commit fouls in the midfield area. Why should we commit fouls? There is no reward for that other than a lot of suspensions with bookings picked up. If we are not tackling that is a different matter but please let us drop this idea that fouling is a good sign. It isn’t: it’s either cynical professionalism or poor technique. Apply whichever label to the player you are talking about at the time.
There have been staunch arguments for Toure being put into midfield (mainly by Flint if memory serves) and I can see why as his defensive capabilities are excellent, his reading of the game and tackling have made him into one of the best central defenders around at the moment. And that is the compelling argument as to why he should not be moved forwards at the moment. Were Wenger to do so, the defence would be filled with at least three inexperienced players which is not going to work in the current climate for Arsenal. For those who do not believe this, remember what happened to Senderos in the early part of last season. Given a torrid time twice in six weeks by Drogba, he was dropped to allow himself to recover mentally. That worked this time round but can Arsene afford to have a defence manned by boys? Despite Djourou’s progress he is still not ready to lead one side of the defence, particularly on the right and it would also place a heavy reliance on Gallas to marshall the troops, something that is hard enough with one inexperienced fullback let alone two fullbacks and a centre back to look out for.
Allied to this the goalshy frontline is exacerbating the defensive frailites. Whilst the total scored domestically is not low as such, the number of different players scoring is surprising: eight. This is good in that it shows that the squad is chipping in. Not so good as you know that some of those players will not score again this season. Up front Henry is ploughing a lonely furrow. The 4-5-1 formation does not suit his style of play particularly and has meant a period of adaptation. The results have exposed the teams over-reliance on his goals with one goal not being enough to win a game any longer. It seems he is having a poor season but the statistics show he is not. Six goals so far is only two behind Drogba who the media would have us believe is the only forward on top of his game. However, he is isolated and reliant on runners from midfield. Whereas in the past he could confidently drift to the left knowing support was in the middle, this season the gap between midfield is more pronounced requiring more numbers in the box should Henry decide to go walkabout. If he does not, he is not an archetypal target man, used to holding the ball up and laying it off. In football terms he is more cerebral than that, a drifter who is best running at pace to devastating effect.
Which begs the question as to why Arsene believes his 4-5-1 is the way forward. It was the formation of choice at this years World Cup, only the Germans played with two forwards consistently and lets be honest, 2006 was a forgettable summer, not just for England’s performances either. 4-5-1 requires a certain type of centre-forward, one equally good in the air as on the ground, a tireless runner and a poacher in the area waiting to pounce on the crumbs from the supporting midfielders. Not a description I would have ordinarily associated with Henry. So why would Wenger go with this formation if his “star striker” does not fit it. Most likely, he believes that the manner of the teams charge through Europe can be replicated in the Premiership which obviously it can. However, at home this is having the opposite effect being countered by a defensive formation that floods the midfield but not the forward line. Having said that, the number of chances created in each home game tends to suggest that it may be a problem with the finishing more than the formation.
The biggest “complaint” has to be the wayward finishing which has to be addressed by Wenger, preferably this January. Each forward will go through a lean patch; when you play essentially with one forward up front then the problem becomes more acute. Arsene has been fortunate that van Persie has chipped in with his fair share of goals this season otherwise the “Goals For” column would be looking very meagre indeed. Gary Player once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get“. I do not think that this team can accused of not working hard. They are just unlucky in front of goal on a lot of occasions which must be draining on their confidence perhaps some fresh blood would boost them in that department?
The final topic of complaint at the moment centers around “Directness” or “Speed of play”. Most people will agree that this team can pass anyone to death. However what they lose on occasion is the focus, the ability to get from one end of the pitch to the other in a matter of seconds. Part of this is due to Henry being marked more tightly but also there seems to be a lack of support some of the time which means a square pass instead of a forward one, allowing midfielders to recover. When they get this part right they can be devastating; it does however require opponents to attack, something visitors to The Emirates have been most reluctant to do. The gameplan after that has to be patient use of ball, stretching the defence by using the full width of the pitch. The introduction of Walcott has enabled this to take place as there is a lack of width otherwise in the team. That is not to say the players do not occupy both touchlines, merely that they appear reticient to go past their opponent on the outside, more likely to cut inside into the melee of players.
After all of that rant, I have to say that in the end they will come good, finishing in the top three. It is going to be a painful journey though without any quick answers.