It’s not often that one dislikes being proved right. I wrote last week that Arsenal would struggle to create meaningful chances without a better plan in midfield and in the final third, and our miserable evening at Stoke on Saturday served ample proof of said struggles.
It’s still only the beginning of the season, and the Bet365 Stadium has never been a happy hunting ground for the Gunners, so there’s probably no need to sound the CRISIS klaxon or dust off the #WENGEROUT airplane banners. Without any change in gameplan, we will probably also get points off worse teams, and maybe even some better teams, than Stoke. But if we don’t see any tactical improvement in the next few weeks, we won’t need to wait till our regular collapse in February for any vague hopes of a title to be dashed, and we will be in severe danger of missing out on a Champions League place again.
Here are a few things Wenger should be thinking about, and which could see our fortunes improve.
Give Olivier Giroud starts against teams whose defences will sit deep (but not against Liverpool)
Opinion over the big Frenchman has been bitterly divided ever since his arrival in 2012. However, regardless of whether you love him or hate him though, there is no question that he can play a role in this team that no other forward can, holding up play and giving us an aerial presence.
In a game where once again crossing was the staple of our attacks going forward, it was baffling to see Giroud on the bench, rather than starting, given this aerial and physical ability. It was evident that Stoke, for all the pretensions of being Stokealona, would have less of the ball in this game. With their switch to a back 3 (or 5 as it was for much of this game) we knew (or damn well should have known) that they would sit deep near their own box, while tasking their forwards with pressurising our defence to prevent any clever build-up play.
Once again our passes up the field were shunted into the wide positions, leading to 26 crosses, of which only 9 made it anywhere near an Arsenal player. While this failure to achieve anything with the crossing would have had something to do with how rubbish the delivery tended to be, the absence of someone who could beat the likes of Shawcross in the air only made it worse.
The Stoke game should have given Wenger an idea of what he needs to do against teams which will sit deep against us – which is most of the league. Bringing in Giroud to act as a focal point, not only for crosses but also one-twos, is the way to deal with these kind of teams, something borne out by the fact that we created 8 chances after Giroud came on in the 65th minute, nearly as many as were created before that in more than double the time (10).
Having said that, Giroud is not the solution against Liverpool on Sunday. Liverpool will not be dropping deep against us, instead employing Klopp’s gegenpress from high up the pitch. This should finally give us the chance to use a pacy forward line which can actually get in behind the Liverpool defenders should they get caught out of position. Alexis Sanchez is a must for this game, subject to fitness, of course, as should be Alexandre Lacazette and/or Danny Welbeck. The latter needs to seriously work on his reactions in the box, as he has continues to find new and innovative ways to fall over or air kick at chances where he really should be hitting the target, meaning that a lot of his hard work off the ball is wasted.
How do you solve a problem like Mesut Ozil? Let him take more risks, or sub him
The German playmaker had one of those games that is almost unique to him. He attempted 99 passes with a pass accuracy of 92.9%, created 4 chances, and took 2 shots (both off-target). Those aren’t bad stats by any stretch of the imagination for someone starting in an inside forward role and then switching to a number 10 role. And yet, you wouldn’t be wrong to say he was one of our most ineffective players on the night.
The stats do show that fans saying he was invisible in the match were not accurate. What they do not show is him having a significant impact. Because most of those passes saw him look for the pass infield, but then turn around and play it backwards or to the wings. The chances created were not big chances. And he never for one moment looked like scoring, even when he got a chance to shoot.
Now this is not his fault alone, you could literally see him looking to play the ball for someone, anyone, forward, but we saw all too few runs into dangerous positions for him to pick out. Unfortunately, with Stoke sitting as deep as they were, it wasn’t really possible for players to make too many great runs either, even though both Lacazette and Welbeck tried.
I know some people will say this is being unfair, but in such circumstances, Ozil has to do better. Yes, the circumstances were such that you can’t really see how anyone could, but that’s his job, to weave some magic in a game like this. And it is incumbent on him to do so, because Wenger gives him more opportunities than anyone else, and never substitutes him. In the new system, he is never expected to come back and assist on defence either.
All this means that he has to do more in his area of influence. If it’s not possible to pick out a run in a forward position, do something different. Play the one-twos with someone in midfield (he dropped very deep in midfield for much of the game anyway), and even take on some defenders with dribbles – Ozil never lost the ball while trying to dribble forward during the entire game, but barely completed any dribbles either. This safety-first approach may have its uses, but he is the creator-in-chief, and he needs to be doing more to try to make something happen.
And if this is not possible, Wenger has to consider taking him off. When we made the substitutions in the game, it should have been Ozil and Welbeck who made way instead of Kolasinac and Lacazette. This would have allowed us to move the Ox into a right midfield position, where his dribbling ability and crossing ability (both of which had been excellent on the day) could have been better served, Kolasinac into his favoured left-back position, and retained the services of the only forward on our team who had looked sharp in the final third. We could have gone 4-4-2 with two natural centre-forwards on the pitch, one orthodox winger on the right, one inverted winger on the left (by bringing on Iwobi) and two central midfielders who could offer something different in Xhaka and Ramsey. But with Ozil on the pitch, 4-4-2, which would have been the most effective way to prise open the Potters, was closed to us.
Provide Xhaka and Ramsey with more comprehensive instructions
Granit Xhaka ended last season looking comfortable in the heart of the midfield 4 in the new system. He had an excellent game in the Community Shield as well, bossing the midfield and dictating play. The new Premier League season has been an entirely different kettle of fish, and he has endured a torrid time against both Leicester and Stoke, getting pressurised into making misplaced passes, and failing in his defensive duties.
This was perfectly encapsulated in his contribution to Stoke’s goal. Xhaka, from a position as the right central midfielder, first misplaced his pass to Mesut Ozil, then rushed forward to win the ball back immediately, which he failed to do, leaving a gaping hole open on the right. It was into this unprotected space that Berahino drove, eventually playing the pass that Jese put away.
The reason why this happens is that Xhaka doesn’t seem to have a clear enough brief in games like this, where an opponent is pressing high up the pitch, while sitting its defenders deep. He is supposed to play the ball out from the back, which he is making a mess of at present, but beyond that, he doesn’t seem to have been instructed about how to deal with his defensive duties. That he should have just stepped back and looked to win the ball back later was mind-numbingly obvious, given the state of the right flank at the time – the right wing-back (Ox) had pushed forward for the pass, Mesut Ozil, the right inside forward, was never going to track back.
You’d think that there would have been clear instructions for him to drop back when the ball was lost on the Arsenal right, given the players on that flank, but he didn’t look like a man with such instructions, making 15 misplaced passes and never having a consistent plan when defending.
That this should have been the case is even more important given Ramsey’s love for wandering forward, a trait which was essential to creating chances against Stoke, but also affected our ability to create combinations in midfield. Ramsey’s dynamism is crucial to us creating chances in the final third, but he has to offer more of himself in the middle of the park. The map of average positions in the first half showed Ramsey furthest forward most of the time, which explains why he took 4 shots, but this is where you want Lacazette (0 shots apart from the offside goal), and you want Ramsey to help Ozil create a passing triangle in midfield rather than force the latter to pass backwards.
When Cazorla returns, one of these two is going to need to sit out games, you would think, though ideally in a sense it is both who should be dropped in favour of a more complete midfielder (something I pointed out back in preseason). Whichever does stay on in the team will certainly benefit from having the little Spaniard to play alongside, but will still need to have more comprehensive instructions to avoid the mistakes evident in the performances thus far.
Stop playing Monreal in the centre of a back 3
Yes, we know that we don’t have all our first choice centre-backs available, but playing Monreal in the middle of the back 3 isn’t the solution. Yes, he’s been one of our most reliable performers in defence for the last couple of years, but that still doesn’t mean that he can play in the middle of a back 3.
Playing him there deprives us of an authoritative, imposing presence in a position that demands an authoritative, imposing presence, a factor that has been on display when both Stoke and Leicester tasked their forwards to press the backline. A better option against Stoke would have been to drop Bellerin, play Mustafi at right centre back, Mertesacker in the centre of the back 3, Monreal as the left centre back, and put Kolasinac at left wing back. This would have allowed Monreal to play a role he is good at, snuffing out attacks calmly on the left side, while Mustafi could have done the same on the right, knowing the calm head of Mertesacker was there behind him. And Kolasinac could have taken his Patton tank impression up and down the left wing, going toe to toe with Mame Diouf and in all likelihood flattening him.
Please never try bringing Walcott in to cross the ball
Not much needs to be said here. Wenger said he brought Walcott on to cross for Giroud, which is nonsensical given not only Walcott’s poor assist record last season (2) as well as the fact that his last assist for Giroud in the Premier League was in 2013.
The Ox, on the other hand, knows how to cross. If our gameplan involves crosses from the right, for the love of God, he should be the one tasked with doing it.