Time was, and not even so long ago, things felt different at Arsenal. No, the championships weren’t exactly flying into the trophy cabinet, but the feeling around the club was one of at least…aspiration. Second place has proven to not be good enough for the Gunner faithful, but only five or so years ago, it was at least thought to be a marker of progress.
During the Barca-lite years between the Invincibles era and the current squad, Arsenal were able to play beautiful football, with young, inexpensive talents, complimenting a shrinking but respected group of veterans. The quality of play did not bring silverware to the Gunners, but it showed a real direction, and every Arsenal fan (myself included) could not wait until the stadium was paid. Wenger, we all thought, will be dominant with a fat chequebook. After all, hadn’t he kept the team right up in the thick of the top four without a big budget?
Well here we are now, my dear Gooners, and I don’t like what I see. Arsene Wenger took a leaf out of Antonio Conte’s book and decided to roll with a back three, barely a month on from saying his tactics are too attacking to facilitate such a shift. To my knowledge, there has been no word as to which Middlesbrough player worried the Frenchman so much, he needed to throw another central defender on to cope. I mean it isn’t like Arsenal have played any attacking teams this year that were able to get behind the defence right?! Oh…
I still am not sure what surprises me most about this situation: that Arsene Wenger actually made a major tactical shift, or that the club had to make such a radical change in order to beat Middlesbrough. I am not sure that is what we all had in mind at the end of last summer when the club looked as though it might have made the requisite changes to challenge on all fronts.
But alas, much has transpired since then, and this is where we are. It may not have been a perfect match, but 3 points is what Arsenal needed, and it’s what they got. Here are some observations from Monday’s 2-1 victory, with a couple thoughts from the week sprinkled in for good measure.
It is well and truly audition season at the Emirates. Arsene Wenger is trying to show the board and the fans he can be adaptable and a bit, dare I say, pragmatic. It remains to be seen whether or not this switch the 3 at the back, and a 3-4-2-1 formation is a trend or an experiment, but the results were somewhat encouraging. The veteran French manager now gets to show us all the fruits of his nightly football film sessions. Needless to say, it has been a while since the club have been under so much pressure to make changes, and it will be interesting to see how they respond going forwards.
It appears as if Shkodran Mustafi is the latest Arsenal defender to be off for a stroll in the wilderness in search of his confidence. While it remains unlikely we will go months before next seeing the £35 million man on the pitch again, you won’t find many supporters who were disappointed by the news of his drop to the bench. His absence was immediately felt: the defenders held their positions better, the team only shipped one goal to he opposition, and not once did Gabriel or Holding choose to yell at a teammate rather than defend. Consider this one switch I wouldn’t mind keeping at present.
Speaking of Rob Holding, he looks to be a tidy piece of summer business for Wenger. I am not sure even he expected to hear calls for his name in the team sheet over his far more expensive fellow signing, but that is football for you. He showed great maturity and the ability to play the ball accurately with both feet. Even if Arsenal return to a more conventional back 4, Holding should continue to get a look in the side.
Stop the presses! Arsenal have located Aaron Ramsey! Finally getting a run out next to Xhaka in the centre of the park for the first time in several weeks, Ramsey actually played his role well. It seems that he may have gotten the message when he saw Mohammed Elneny picked ahead of him in the midfield. Though he possesses little of Ramsey’s upside, Elneny’s risk assessment and ability to make himself available for the easy pass are valuable traits to have. If Ramsey is finally going to add those components to his game look out, we may finally get the player we have been promised for years now (can we not mention how many Arsenal players of the last ten years this sentence could easily refer to? Thanks).
If Olivier Giroud was ever quick, it was before he started playing in front of the cameras. He also showed yet again that he struggles to make the same impact over 90 minutes that he can in 15 as a sub. The idea was obviously to get service to the towering Frenchman early and often, but hitting the top of a statue with a cross while under pressure is more difficult than it looks.
Speaking of looks, Mesut Ozil continues to catch on. I have seen the languid #11 around the ball in defence more the last two weeks than I had in the previous 3 seasons. You can almost hear him saying “are you happy now, English?” as he takes off in pursuit of the ball. There is no question in my mind that this is not going to be a permanent commitment, but he is at least showing Gooners everywhere that his commitment is serious.
In other news, had Arsenal loanee, Callum Chambers, been allowed to play against his parent club, the score may well have been different. He has formed a rock solid partnership at the heart of the Boro defense with fellow league wide transfer target Ben Gibson, and though he has been injured of late, was big part of the club’s early season defensive success.
Alexis Sanchez continues to make the case against selling him a strong one. His curled effort from outside the area was brilliant. The 50 or so times Gooners can look forward
to seeing him attempt to repeat the feat, however, will be significantly less brilliant. For every one successful pass he makes in the attacking third, he gives three away cheaply. Alexis is intent on either scoring or assisting every single goal the team score. He is easily one of the club’s most gifted attackers, but his passing accuracy leaves much to be desired. Sometimes the great ones are also the selfish ones. Still, watching Sanchez try and play the ball cheekily through the lines and fail has become on of my personal weekly frustrations.
Nacho Monreal was largely anonymous last night, and for the Gunners, that is good news. He perhaps benefitted more than anyone else from Arsenal’s tactical shift. Allowing him to focus on his duties down the flank, knowing Rob Holding was behind him really kept the left side from being a dramatic affair throughout most of the match.
Ozil’s match winner was extremely well taken. It isn’t often you feel bad for the multi-million pound stars in football, but given many Arsenal fans’ reluctance to offend Alexis Sanchez (and his two dogs) for fear of making him leave, Ozil has no such immunity. Great to see the joy on his face after securing his team the 3 points.
Granit Xhaka had a solid if unmemorable match. He has quietly started to put his disciplinary issues behind him. It seemed the team were not entirely comfortable in their new formation, and Xhaka attempted to spray the ball out wide less directly than we have been accustomed to seeing. Not much else to report about the club’s other major summer signing.
For what feels like the 40th time all season, Arsenal were subjected to a twelfth man on the opposition. The less I can say on the referees in the Premier League this season, the better for my health. Needless to say, another blown no call in the penalty area could have spelled disaster for the team if they had not been successful in breaking the deadlock later in the match.
Overall, the new formation experiment had mixed results. While it is unquestionable that Arsenal did look a little better in their own end, too often they experienced sustained pressure from a team in Middlesbrough that are capable of going entire matches without a clear shot on goal. Ultimately, I don’t believe the future of Arsenal Football Club lies in a back three in defence. What the club need is more defensive work rate in the forward lines, and a newer, more defensively proficient left back.
It seems at least one of those issues has been addressed with the apparent signing of Sead Kolasinic, and it is with him that my thoughts for the day draw to a close. Look, the player is undoubtedly a defensive force, who also has some ability up the flank, but he is not nearly the can’t fail signing some would like to believe. For all of his functional strength, Kolasinic is not a naturally fluid athlete. He has a heavy stride, and though he has been portrayed by many as having great balance, his over the toes, top heavy gait is definitely a risk for lower body injuries, and at times when looking to go shoulder to shoulder, he is the one ended up sprawled on the turf. That being said, if he stays
healthy, his is indeed to right kind of full-back for what Arsenal need their defenders to do most of all: defend
Happy week Gooners! FA Cup coming up again. Hope you are all excited as I am for the run up to the end of the season, and an exciting summer beyond. It is going to be a fight and test of character, but what better circumstances could there be for figuring out who wants to fight for the title next year?