Thank heavens for the International break. After a transfer window that triggered mutinous reactions from large swaths of the fan base, a match at the Emirates this past Saturday could have been a very tense situation between the fans and the team. Instead, Arsenal fans will have to wait a week to voice their displeasure when Eddie Howe takes his Bournemouth side to North London. Those fans hoping that a small club will prove to be just the thing this Arsenal side need to get the season back on track must still look back on the last time they faced the Cherries, a 3-3 draw on the south coast, and still hold some reservations.
While the transfer window might have been a disappointment to fans hoping for some late new additions to the squad, Arsenal only lost 1 major contributor from last season, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, while managing to bring in 2 potentially world class signings, in addition to trimming the wage bill for increased transfer flexibility when the window reopens in January.
Speaking of the January transfer window, Arsene Wenger revealed publicly that the club had indeed bid €100 million for Monaco ace Thomas Lemar on deadline day. In fact, the only thing that likely prevented Arsenal from nearly doubling their largest ever transfer fee paid was the last minute nature of Manchester City’s improved £60 million bid for Alexis Sanchez. While it was ultimately Lemar who rejected the move, he had very little time to make a decision while due to play for his country in the dying hours of the window and it would have been extremely difficult to finalise all of the moving parts in the limited time allowed by Manchester City. The young Frenchman must not have been too cold in his rejection, as Arsene Wenger was quoted saying very clearly that Arsenal would be back for him again in January.
Still, there are 2 reasons why Arsenal fans should not be disappointed with that last gasp of transfer drama unfolded. The first of which, and most obvious, is that the Gunners got to keep their best player from a year ago, one of the hottest commodities in Europe, as evidenced by attacker-rich Manchester City’s keen pursuit of the Chilean. The added bonus to this is, of course, preventing a direct rival from improving. The second positive sign is a little less obvious: Arsene Wenger did not allow his team to be played by Pep Guardiola and the savvy movers and shakers up north. It was obvious what City had in mind: they wanted to take Arsenal all the way to the end of the window before offering a fair deal so as to prevent them from properly replacing their talisman in a mad rush at the end of the window. The last thing that Guardiola wanted to do was supply Wenger with enough time and money to seal a deal for someone like Marco Asensio or Kylian Mbappe: true transcendent type talents that could ultimately see the Gunners better off in the long run.
Searching For Answers
Perhaps the biggest disappointment so far this season has been the total inefficacy of Arsenal in centre midfield. Fans used to an Arsenal team loaded up on technically gifted, possession wizards in the centre of the pitch, this new look Arsenal has been an adjustment to watch. Particularly during the last 10 years, parroting the slick pass and move style of La Liga giants Barcelona has meant a 3 man midfield and intricate passing combinations up and down the pitch, but not so since last season’s formation shift towards a 3-4-2-1. In their new look, much of Arsenal’s most talented players are shifted out towards the flanks, leaving just two central midfielders to shoulder the bulk of the work in the middle.
At the end of last season, Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey began to look as if they might be the long term solution, coming together to solidify the position for the first time since Santi Cazorla’s autumn injury against Ludogrets. If there was optimism surrounding the duo’s chances to build on that late season success, the early returns this season have put a serious damper on those hopes. Xhaka looks as lumbering and slow footed as he has in his Arsenal career, and Aaron Ramsey shows little inclination to do all of the less glamorous little things that make a successful box to box midfielder, choosing instead to push on into a support striker role. Even when he is fussed with defending, the results are often erratic, as his 15 seconds of non-stop shambolic missed tackles at one point against Liverpool showed, much to the amusement of the Anfield faithful.
Luckily for Arsenal, they are a team with options still to try. Jack Wilshere has worked his way back to full fitness and is likely banging down Arsene Wenger’s office door trying to get a look in the squad. Unlike Chelsea’s midfield, which stays together more as a unit, Arsenal’s midfield duo have slightly different roles to perform, particularly with the contrasting Xhaka and Ramsey both on the pitch. Should Wenger look to keep those roles roughly the same, trying Francis Coquelin in a Granit Xhaka’s holding role while inserting Wilshere in for Ramsey could work. Neither will offer quite the same distance covered figures of he Welshman, but both are at least more mobile than Xhaka and quite possibly represent a superior defensive duo. Should Wenger want a better passer in the holding/defensive role, Mohammed Elneny could be an answer as well with his sure footed passing ability. Whatever a Wenger decides to do, it is apparent that the midfield is in need of some attention.
Let Calum Play
Equally as frustrating as the performance of the midfield so far this season has been the disappointingly porous defence. Worst of all, the problems are the same as they have been for years with the club: overly aggressive defenders leading to early chances for the opponent, a lack of commitment to marking back, an inability to stop far post moves, and a total lack of physical domination on set pieces and aerial duels.
Either luckily or most bewildering of all, it seems that there are answers to some of these problems already in the squad, making Wenger’s reticence to trying those solutions out even more puzzling. Will Per Mertesacker, probably Europe’s tallest defender, get a look in the centre back role? He should be, particularly as Arsenal keep getting overwhelmed in the air. Obviously, Arsene Wenger is given pause by the giant German’s lack of mobility, but surely the back line sitting a few yards deeper when in possession is a small price to pay for security in the air? Mertesacker is also the team’s most intelligent and talkative defender, which also should help a notoriously quiet and non-communicative back line.
If Mertesacker’s inclusion would help stabilize Arsenal without the ball, many fans would argue that equal benefit would come from dropping Nacho Monreal to the bench. The Spaniard is undoubtedly one of Arsenal’s most consistent defenders, but how much does that really count for when one is merely average on a consistent basis. While he has now lost too much pace to be effective at wing back, he is athletic for a centre back, with a good passing ability to boot, which is likely what compels Wenger to leave him on. Surely Shkodran Mustafi, along with a healthy Laurent Koscielny flanking Per Mertesacker must be a more solid trio than what we have seen so far this season.
Even if Wenger doesn’t see a trio he likes out if his veterans, we have still yet to mention the two youngsters, Rob Holding and a Calum Chambers. Though he has had his share of inconsistencies since joining last summer, Holding has accounted for himself very well so far in the Premier League. Perhaps even more impressive last season was a Calum Chambers’ performance at the heart of the Middlesbrough defence last season, a loan move that worked a treat for the player until a January injury halted his progress and hurt the team’s defensive performances. At 6’3, Chambers is the second tallest of all Arsenal’s centre backs behind a Mertesacker, and a sold physical presence in the air. Playing last season for a defensive minded relegation battler would have taught Chambers the importance of mistake free play, as any goal scored against Boro last season likely would have been enough to beat them.
So why is he still wearing a suit on match day? Why is it this youngster, who Wenger once thought so highly of as to pay £15 million for him, not getting a look in? One thing is certain, Arsenal are not likely to give anything away. What is known is that a few weeks back, Arsene Wenger removed him from the club’s list of ‘deadwood’, so to speak. After spending the beginning of the summer fielding offers for the Englishman, Arsenal changed tact and decided that he would be staying. Young players need to play, it is how they continue to develop, so what gives? A backline containing both he and Mertesacker would instantly give the Gunners more presence in the air to stop any threat in the box. Opposing teams are only going to increase the number of crosses and back post balls they put into the Arsenal area until they prove capable of stopping them. Don’t be surprised to see some moving parts in defence as well as midfield once we return from the international break until Arsene finds this year’s winning formula.
Fix What Broke
Perhaps the most important thing that Arsene Wenger and his staff can do to right the ship at the Emirates is to fix what has broken. There are massive amounts of quality and talent in the Arsenal squad. As always in recent years (with the exception of Danish egomaniac Nicklas Bendtner) this team’s biggest problem is self-belief. Too many players have fallen off their best, even ones in the most ascendant parts of their careers. From Hector Bellerin who has not been the same since last season’s serious ankle injury and the fan abuse that followed. Bellerin must also have felt crushed and humiliated this summer as his boyhood club and hometown team, Barcelona, frustrated by Wenger’s rebuke of their approach, publicly ridiculed the fullback, claiming him not to have the physical, mental and technical qualities necessary to be a Barcelona player. You know, like Nelson Semedo…
Still, it will be nice for the pacey Spaniard to get back to his proper side on the right now that Oxlade-Chamberlain has gone. Without the pressure of imbalancing the team to satisfy 1 player, Wenger will be able to bring Sead Kolasinac back in the side at wing back, giving Arsenal 5 defensive minded players at the back. Given the way they have leaked goals so far this season, this would not be a bad thing for the Gunners.
In addition to Bellerin, Shkodran Mustafi and Rob Holding are also subject to fluctuating form based on confidence. Mustafi, much lime Bellerin, has not seemed right since his promising start to life in North London. Since first falling out of the starting XI, Mustafi has seemed undone by increased pressure and guilty of trying to do too much at times. It is visible when he starts to press, often making rash challenges and getting whistled for poorly timed fouls as he tries to undo past mistakes. it is much the same with Rob Holding, although even younger at just 21, managing his confidence is even more important.
The Gunners have options. They have depth. They have quality and young talent and an exciting brand of football to call their own. Arsenal under Arsene Wenger have not fallen just yet, but they will have to do more than ever before just to keep within sight of the top of the league.