I had the fortune, or misfortune, as you might see it, of being at the Emirates on Monday evening for Arsenal’s win over the Baggies, and it is safe to say that this was the most toxic atmosphere I have ever seen at a football match. That things weren’t going to be peachy was clear from the outset, with a large number of seats in the west stands empty – still, one could excuse that because of the fact that this was a Monday evening, so not the most convenient.
But there was a palpable change in the level of excitement before kick-off. For all our grumbling and discontent, we Gooners have at the very least begun each game with a certain sense of anticipation and optimism (even if this is utterly shattered as the game goes on). On Monday, however, even the normal roar that accompanies the announcement of the players and the countdown to kick-off was muted.
As the game progressed, things only got worse. Perhaps the clearest indication that things aren’t what they should be was that the chants about Tottenham barely got a response, and this lack of cheering was no exception. I can’t even recall a single “Ooh to be a Gooner”, there was an abortive attempt to sing “By Far The Greatest Team”, and there wasn’t even an enthusiastic “To The Arsenal One Nil” when we went one nil up. It was also telling that the loudest player chants sung were for Olivier Giroud and Jack Wilshere while warming up, and not for any of the players on the pitch.
It would be fair to point out that Arsenal fans have never been known for creating the kind of atmosphere that can cause a minor earthquake like the good people of Leicester. But even so, the fans in the stadium have always got behind the team, out of sheer hope if nothing else, and out of recognition of the fact that the team were trying hard enough. And this is precisely why things were so toxic at the Emirates on Monday, because despite winning, the team played more like a mid-table challenger for the Europa League, than a member of England’s elite with hopes of the Champions League.
Midfield goes walkabout again
Arsenal came away from Stamford Bridge the previous weekend a little disappointed that they hadn’t been able to get more than a point, something which few of us were expecting prior to the game. The reason that they were able to do this, however, was because of a solid midfield performance, which saw Alex Iwobi and even Danny Welbeck drop back into the middle of the park, and, most crucially, Aaron Ramsey playing a more disciplined central midfield role.
When Ramsey plays in the centre in that manner, sticking to his position and only occasionally looking to burst beyond the opposition defence after a passing move, he can look like a world-beater, as he did back in 2013-14. However, at Wenger’s instruction, he ends up playing a decoy central midfielder role too often, never really taking up positions in the middle to support his midfield partner Xhaka. Some of this is down to his own positional indiscipline, but it is more of a tactical decision.
While Ramsey was pushed into a more attacking role on Monday because of injuries to our inside forward options, the same problem arose with Mohamed Elneny this time around (proving that this strange positioning is a conscious Wenger decision rather than indiscipline on Ramsey’s part only). The first consequence of this was the defensive frailty in the first half (including the penalty that should have been given), as the defence was completely unprotected by the midfield.
But the more problematic consequence was the lack of attacking coherence, as the midfield failed to click in any meaningful attacking way. A recent article in the Guardian about Kevin De Bruyne’s role in Manchester City’s midfield at present talks about how he provides the impetus to move the team through the gears and convert tiki-taka passing into incisive forward thrusts. At Arsenal, unfortunately, there is no player at present capable of doing this, and the results have been stark, with stodgy passing that never seems to end with a decent through-ball.
Even if we don’t have someone who can play that more pedigreed midfield role perfectly, the bigger problem is that we don’t even let anyone play in that position where they might be able to influence things. On Monday, Tony Pulis packed the midfield but there were still multiple moments where Granit Xhaka had the ball in central midfield but his only option was to pass the ball back to the defenders or to the wing-backs in positions that were not particularly advanced. Elneny on these occasions would drift upfield and then to the sides, attempting to draw opposition players out of position. But with West Brom well-drilled, they didn’t fall for the trick and held their positions and marked their original targets, and on the occasions that Elneny was then picked out by a pass because he was not marked, he was never in a position to do anything with it.
Failure to utilise width properly
Arsenal Insider’s Benoit Pimpaud (@Ben8t on Twitter) prepared a data visualisation chart from Monday’s game that was absolutely fascinating, and was remarkable in showing something that I could feel while watching the game, but wasn’t sure could be backed up.
Sead Kolasinac has become a firm fan favourite ever since joining in the summer, and the chief reason for that has been his ability to maraud forward like a juggernaut, bouncing defenders off him with ease. We saw this happen once or twice in the game against West Brom, but this was a great rarity during the game, as compared to Bellerin’s advanced presence out on the right. Benoit’s chart shows clearly how this translated into his average position when receiving passes, which was mostly so deep he was practically alongside out left-sided centre-back Nacho Monreal. His heat map from the game also demonstrated the same thing, with no discernible presence out on the left in the final third.
The reason this was so was because of some absolutely haphazard play on our left. Sanchez had a pretty poor night, never managing to link up play on this side particularly well, and often losing the ball doing utterly silly things, like the time he was doing keepy-uppies, only to miscontrol the third or fourth and lose the ball embarrassingly. Another reason why things were so rubbish on the left, however, was that the most advanced player often ended up being Mohamed Elneny – as discussed above, his decoy role consistently led him into advanced wide positions, where he was about as useful as a rabbit at a horse race.
The inability to use width on the left also had a knock-on effect on the play down the right, as we were never really stretching West Brom enough to open up gaps on the right or the middle. Thierry Henry once went into great detail to explain how Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona created space, key to which was using wide players in the right positions to create gaps in midfield and on the opposite side. Arsenal never even threatened to do that on Monday, with any cross-field play ponderously working its way from side to side because of the lack of numbers in central midfield, and the absence of proper positioning on the left.
Midfield tactics and selection making us look worse than we are
It is baffling that this happened time and again, in a manner that prevented our best winger from getting forward, but this was a natural result of Wenger’s midfield tactics. And it is something he really needs to think about when going up against not just elite opposition, but also mid-table sides. Because our current midfield tactics make us look nothing short of pedestrian. We have no invention, no incisiveness, no drive, no vision, no fluency.
There were the odd occasions when we tried to play one-touch passes in midfield and even tried a dummy, but the lack of quality or composure of our players meant that these ended up going horribly wrong and gifting West Brom possession.
The failures of the team inevitably led to poor reactions from the fans, and even the final whistle at 2-0 caused barely a cheer. We scored two goals from set-pieces, barely created anything of any note apart from those, and notwithstanding Pulis’ typically brutish tactics, never really looked like we had any ideas to create chances.
Tonight, against BATE Borisov, we have rested a number of regular first-team players, including Ramsey and Xhaka. This should be used as an opportunity to try out something different in midfield – trying to control it through a proper midfield presence. As argued in a previous edition of The Inquest, the man who should be entrusted this task is Jack Wilshere. Since I last wrote, Jack has been given some chances in midfield and while it is clear that he needs to shake off some of the rustiness, the signs were there that he could do the job for us that we so desperately need.
He can hold the ball in midfield, rather than just look to wash his hands of it when under pressure, his passing range is good, and he is capable of playing cleverly to create space, whether through one-twos or a well-timed dummy (which set up the third goal against Cologne).
It will be fascinating to see how things play out in midfield tonight (where he is expected to partner Elneny), and whether this really proves to be the solution to our midfield problems. But rather than hope for the prodigal son to save us, it would be better if Wenger took matters into his own hands and got the team playing the Arsenal way before he loses the fans entirely.