2 games. Same opponent. Same score. Same bitter disappointment. It’s been a particularly brutal week for Arsenal fans – 3-0 thumpings back-to-back are never anything less, but it hurts much more when you lose to a team playing the kind of football you wish your team was playing, and on top of that have not played for years now, and never will without some serious change.
It is difficult to imagine that such change isn’t far away. The Cup final performance was shambolic, flowing from a deeply flawed team selection combining with sloppy defending combining with a failure to tweak things tactically even when it was obvious that our plan wasn’t working. It wasn’t good enough that we’d looked ok prior to Aguero’s goal: the subsequent failure to create any pressure of note was a grievous failing of the entire team’s set-up. At the Emirates, we looked quite decent again, but were skewered by the failings of our central midfield, something which has been an obvious flaw in this side for years, and yet was ignored in the last 3 transfer windows even while other areas were strengthened (sort of).
The gaping hole at the heart of our central midfield has been the single-biggest issue with our personnel since Vieira’s departure. Now when we speak of that failure to replace him (and then Gilberto as well later), what immediately comes to mind is the absence of a hard-tackling strongman who can bull teams into submission. And yes, we have missed that.
But what we’ve lost is not just physicality, it’s control. The ability to take control of a game, and play it on our terms rather than our opponents’. The Vieira-Petit and the Vieira-Gilberto combine created a fantastically stable platform, yes, but they also ran the game, alternating between keeping the ball and launching devastating counter-attacks.
The City games help drive home the loss of this even more. At Wembley, it was Fernandinho and Gundogan in a double pivot, and at the Emirates, it was Ilkay Gundogan, who sat deep, read the game well, and laid the foundation for their team’s dominance. We all talk about De Bruyne and Silva, and how important they are to City’s midfield magic, but they are given the platform to work that magic by the defensive midfielder(s). What’s most important to note is that they weren’t just making tackles but also making interceptions in key areas in the games.
Our own midfielders failed to have any such impact in both games. On Sunday, they did make a few tackles and interceptions, but these were part of a performance where we were mostly under siege and so don’t say much. On Thursday evening, when we were trying to take the game to them, and so needed the double pivot of Xhaka and Ramsey to be strong, they were atrociously bad from a defensive standpoint. Ramsey failed to make a single interception, while Xhaka made one in the final third going forward.
This small bit of data itself shows how bad our positioning was. But for those of you who want more hard evidence, just look at all three goals we conceded at the Emirates. For the first, Sane skips past four players, including Xhaka, who makes one of the most brain-dead challenges you will ever see, trying to hack him down instead of staying with him, missing completely and flailing into the ground. For the second, Sane bypasses Ramsey and Bellerin all too easily, and Xhaka just watches when Silva makes his burst forward to pick up Aguero’s neat pass. For the third, both Xhaka and Ramsey are caught high up on the left wing, instead of one of them sitting deep to help the defence. Given Ramsey’s propensity to drive forward, which also helped create some of our best chances in the game, you’d expect Xhaka to do that, but as his heat map shows, he spent most of the game just ahead of the halfway line, for reasons beyond the ken of mortal men like us, I guess. The indiscipline of both of them is just shocking, which isn’t something new, as I’ve pointed out time and time again in this column.
The rest of what happened is just window dressing. A team which doesn’t exert stability and control in central midfield cannot win the big trophies. It’s why we can’t win the Premier League. It’s why we couldn’t get past the Champions League round of 16. It’s why we will probably fail to win the Europa League this season. Worst of all, it’s a problem that is obvious, and yet we’ve done nothing to solve it. Instead, we’ve made things worse, and worse and worse through our transfer dealings. Selling Coquelin in the January window when he was our only out and out defensive midfielder. Buying Xhaka instead of Kante in 2016. Failing to secure Adrien Rabiot when he was upset with PSG in January 2017. Failing to groom Ainsley Maitland-Niles for the role this season, or finding another option instead of persisting with Xhaka.
These decisions are all on Wenger. All of them. Failure to address this problem has exacerbated other issues in the team, including the lack of width to stretch opponents. If a top-flight manager can’t see these problems and try to deal with them, he doesn’t deserve to be a top-flight manager. The fans have had enough. The players are, reportedly, exhausted and are begging for more guidance than Wenger is able to provide.
But it’s clear that Wenger can’t do this anymore. We can only hope whoever replaces him sees the problem (how could he not?) and sorts it out.