It’s taken three days to be able to actually type out something not full of expletives and angry invective, so bad was that Arsenal performance on Sunday. Liverpool were quite frankly several notches above us in quality, and all Arsenal’s failings we’ve been worried about were on evidence to the fullest, as the team capitulated in a manner even worse than the 8-2 at Old Trafford.
So what did we learn, tactically from this match?
Ramsey and Xhaka are not good enough
I have harped on our problems in central midfield in every single issue of the Inquest thus far, and the Liverpool game has only driven the point home.
Ramsey and Xhaka have certain individual elements that are useful in central midfield, but the cold hard truth is that they do not form a core that the team can actually built around. Ramsey is not good enough at keeping possession, picking good passes, and doesn’t seem to care about defensive duties in his obsessive quest to get forward. Xhaka sits deep but doesn’t have the defensive nous to shield the defenders, whether in tackling, interceptions, or forcing players into positions where their threats are neutralised, and makes far too many mistakes.
Time and time again, the back 3 was exposed without any protection, as the two central midfielders messed up distribution, tackling, everything. It’s baffling that Wenger and the coaching staff hadn’t realised this already, and looked to bolster our options in central midfield, but even when we have been linked with transfers, it’s always been for attacking players, not defensive ones.
This was particularly galling when we saw PSG midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak sign for West Brom on loan – yes, he had a poor season for PSG last year, but had been immense for Sevilla before that. Would he have solved all our problems? No. But it’s absolutely certain that Ramsey and Xhaka can’t cut it at the top level.
And that’s what we need to aim at. Not just getting results against regular Premier League teams. Being able to beat the best clubs in Europe, that’s what we need to be doing. And that requires a top quality midfield, which these two are not, and never will be. We saw how a Liverpool midfield of Can, Wijnaldum and Henderson was able to outclass them, and that isn’t even their first-choice midfield combination. And is nowhere close to what the very best in Europe will be (think Kroos Modric Casemiro), which shows just how far away we are from the top.
Bring back Jack, and other central midfield permutations
Given of course, that no new signings in central midfield are imminent, it is crucial that Wenger look to utilise the resources he has better. When Cazorla is fit, this should spell a return for Coqueling to partner him, as despite the latter’s limitations, he is better defensively, and Cazorla’s creativity is enough for both of them. But Cazorla isn’t going to be back just yet, so there are still several weeks where we need another midfield combination.
Till then, it might be worth giving more chances to Mohamed Elneny, who despite not having the passing range of Xhaka or the dynamism of Ramsey, is a cooler head defensively, and can perform a water-carrier role quite well. He’s not flashy, but his distribution is good, and he can pick the odd excellent (forward-looking) pass, as he showed when setting up Lacazette’s goal against Leicester. If he has the right partner who can sit alongside him but be better going forwards with the ball, I really think he can flourish. Which leads us to who should partner him.
And I would say that alongside him, we should pick … Jack Wilshere. Now I know this is a controversial choice, with concerns over his injury and development long-standing ones. But we need something different, and Jack has a point to prove. The role is also most closely aligned with the position he played in during the 2010-11 season when he was so good, involving sitting deep but bringing the ball forward to link with our attacking players.
A calm head like Elneny’s alongside him would ensure that he doesn’t have to focus excessively on defensive duties, and which means he won’t have to do anything rash or silly. And he can actually use some of his better attributes like his close control and dribbling ability in this formation (knowing there’s someone positionally disciplined alongside him to mop up), while always having the option of someone close by to pass to in case the attempts to dispossess him become too violent.
Has the back 3 has run its course?
This is a trickier one to answer. I mentioned in my first volume of the Inquest that Wenger likes the 3-4-2-1 because of the flexibility this offers him in team selection, and the fact that he can add at least one more attacking player to the team.
However, the team set up in this formation is really not working at present, and it all comes down to one man: Alexis Sanchez.
As mentioned last week, our success with the 3-4-2-1 relies on Sanchez’s initiation of a high press. Without him in the team, however, this press doesn’t materialise, and even when he is in the team, if he or the rest of the team aren’t up for the fight (as was the case against Liverpool), the formation instead becomes a clunky operation with no clear focal point or plan of attack.
This leads to pointless shuffling of the ball between Xhaka and the defence, and hopeful crosses played into the area, which means that any chances created are never clear-cut ones.
In such circumstances, you would think a reversion to a back 4 would be the way to go forward, but Wenger is notoriously stubborn about changing formations, so I would not expect that for some time.
Could some transfers have helped make the back 3 a success? Absolutely. A couple of better central midfielders would have been a start. An alternative to Mesut Ozil who can better assist the high press would have been another way to improve things (think Mahrez or maybe Draxler). An authoritative defender like Virgil Van Dijk would also help deal with the consequences of midfield giveaways and positional lapses, and also mean we don’t have to rely on playing full-backs and rookies there every single game.
So that’s all right then, as we have half a day to go out and buy that half-team that’s needed to make the team click again.
Bellerin needs to buck up
At the beginning of last season, Hector Bellerin was arguably the best right-back in the Premier League. His fall from grace no doubt coincides with Arsenal’s over the course of the last year, but something seems awfully wrong with him. His touches and forward play have become woefully poor, he seems to have given up entirely on the concept of defending, or even thinking defensively (remember how he got robbed for Liverpool’s third goal).
He looks like he needs some time to sort his head out and get himself back up to his best, and this could have been possible with the presence in the squad of a player who could play at right wing back capably till the young Spaniard was in better shape. However, it looks like the Ox is out, taking with him our hopes for a future powerhouse central midfielder as well as an excellent option (though not against Liverpool) at right or even left wing back.
While we still have good options on the left in Kolasinac and Monreal, this leaves Bellerin as our only right wing back, which should be cause for great concern given his current form. While this may prove a blessing in disguise for young Reiss Nelson, who looked the real deal in pre-season, that surely cannot be the plan, as he is still way too young and inexperienced to have this much responsibility thrust on him.