Arsenal seasons have for several years followed certain trends. A good start, then a bad phase in the new year that blows all chances of the Premier League, culminating in Champions League knockout, followed by a rousing end to the season inspired by a tactical change. This season has thus far been quite different. Six losses and six draws already, 30 goals conceded in 23 games, and a very paltry 41 scored – it’s been a slow-motion car crash for the most part.
As pointed out before, this isn’t just about the points tally. We’ve had seasons where we’ve not got results, but we still had our identity and a style of play, and it is the loss of that which has been felt most keenly by Arsenal fans this season, I think. In fact, so bad have our performances been that we’re quite lucky to still be 6th in the table.
The one advantage of things having been this bad is that perhaps, for once, we might just see that tactical rejig that we tend to pull out of the hat at the last moment, a little bit earlier. Of course, we all know how stubborn Wenger can be – take last season, for instance, when he resolutely refused to change the formation after Cazorla’s injury despite 4-2-3-1 just not working for us. But this season, with everything going to pot, we also have something we’ve not had to deal with since the day Van Persie left – the departure of our most important player. And in fact more than just that.
Sanchez’s departure is imminent, and with it comes to an end the team that Wenger has tried to build since 2012. In that year, he brought in Giroud, Podolski and Cazorla – Cazorla’s continuing injuries mean we’ll probably never see him in an Arsenal shirt (or any football jersey, for that matter) again, Giroud is well down the pecking order and could even be sold this month, and Podolski is long gone. The next big signings to build the team were Ozil in 2013 and Sanchez in 2014, and these were the men who were to be the high class engine that would power the team, which would be structured around the British core of Ramsey, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gibbs and Jenkinson. The last three are gone, one to seek better development, the others because they never fulfilled their potential. We don’t know what’s going to happen with Ozil, and Sanchez is going. In the meanwhile, Theo Walcott, our longest-serving player on the books, has been sold to Everton, and that departure, more than anything else, symbolises the final nail in the coffin for that old Arsenal team, the team that was meant to be so much, but never quite made it.
The reason we can turn this to our advantage is because it means there is a chance to not just tweak something in the middle of the season and trundle on. There is a chance here to actually take the team in a new direction, one which can make us more competitive. Two things can drive this.
Fixing the Style of Play
First, a re-evaluation of the style of play in the team. Against Bournemouth, while the rest of the team was nothing short of dire, Jack Wilshere played like a man on a mission. He demonstrated a wide range of passing, he distributed the ball intelligently, dribbled and retained the ball when needed, and kept the midfield ticking over. Despite the terrible result, that was by far the best central midfield performance I’ve seen from an Arsenal player since Cazorla’s in the 3-0 win over Chelsea last season.
In Wilshere, we have a chance to once more rebuild the team around quality midfield passing and movement, and give him his chance to shine. This chance must be grasped with both hands. Of course, we mustn’t make the mistake of the Fabregas years and forget to marry silk with steel – there has to be a search for a defensive midfielder of high quality who can work in tandem with Jack. There was a possibility to do so with Coquelin, at least as a stopgap arrangement, but he’s also been sold to Valencia – another great hope from a mid-season gone by, gone. Xhaka really isn’t it, and I really hope Wenger understands that, and looks to recruit someone new for that position in the summer – though in Ainsley Maitland-Niles, we may already what we need. He’s not perfect, and he needs a lot of improvement, as some of his mistakes against Eddie Howe’s team showed, but he’s got the attributes – strength, speed, technique, and a decent reading of the game – which are needed in that position.
With this as a midfield base, we can ensure that we once again play through the middle, using the flanks sensibly, rather than sending wing-backs down the channel and then having nobody to cross to, allowing defenders to regroup and compress space in the middle. Players like Ramsey and Lacazette will also benefit, with the ball retained and used well through the middle, and Wilshere’s more cerebral use of the ball will also help Ozil (provided he stays), who’ll be receiving passes in better positions to influence the game, rather than having to drop off from his positions to pick up the ball. With a quicker, more physical defensive midfielder, we can be more assured of not getting caught out when we play possession football, and of having someone who can actually break up play when we’re defending without having to commit to silly tackles.
Secondly, we also have the prospect of some new signings to shake things up. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is not quite Alexis Sanchez, but he has undeniable quality, and is very much a Wenger player. Good technique, good vision and very mobile, the Armenian will bring a great deal of versatility to the squad, being able to operate as the left inside forward in the 3-4-2-1, a wide player in a 4-3-3 or a number 10/ winger in 4-2-3-1. Some will point to his lack of success at United, but I think that does him a disservice. He’s had periods where he has looked excellent, such as the start of this season, but ultimately never been given any positional clarity by Mourinho, and he’s always been a convenient scapegoat for the Portuguese to throw under the bus.
At Arsenal, I can see Mkhitaryan linking well with Ozil and Ramsey, which will help spur us going forward, but in particular, I’m excited to see his relationship with Lacazette. The Frenchman has suffered from a lack of service in recent weeks – the whole team has suffered in Ozil’s absence already – and nobody else is being able to pick him out as well, even Sanchez. The Chilean’s play in the team has been quite problematic, with him often causing moves to break down because he tries to dribble with the ball, or waits too long to release a fellow player. Even at best in the position, he was deadly less for being part of play, but more for his pressing abilities which would lead to chances. But whatever the situation, having only one creative inside forward or when Ozil is unavailable, none, is hurting the team.
Mkhitaryan should be able to address that problem, in the 3-4-2-1 and in other formations as well, where he can become a wide-player who has the intelligence to create chances.
The former BVB man’s signing becomes even more exciting in light of the possible signing of current BVB man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The Gabon striker had a fruitful relationship with the Armenian in the 2015-16 season in particular, and is again, a good foil for him as he can make good runs in behind the defence. Aubameyang is more complete in a sense than Lacazette, because he also has good heading ability – he’s scored more headed goals than even Lewandowski in recent seasons in the Bundesliga.
The idea of Aubameyang leading the line for Arsenal, whether on his own, or alongside Lacazette, is extremely exciting as he would be the first forward with a strong mix of all attributes we’ve had since Adebayor. Of course, like the Togo international, Aubameyang has disciplinary problems, but Wenger has the stature to deal with that – and he may not even face those problems at Arsenal since he will be given a lot of freedom to express himself.
Either which way, bringing in these new players actually gives us a lot more versatility and the ability to shake things up more, which we need, as usual. With Jack’s resurgence, once can only hope that this becomes a more sensible, forward-thinking shaking up, which will benefit the team not just till the end of the season, but going forward as well.