Nothing perhaps sums up this current Arsenal squad these days as much as the fact that nobody really expected them to beat Manchester City on Sunday at the Etihad. This wasn’t even about our woeful record against teams in the top flight away from home – the sad truth, that all Gooners wee well aware of, was that we are no longer playing football that is remotely on the same level as Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking team
It is a little surprising, therefore, that it took two sketchy goals to give City the win: one, a dubious penalty won by Raheem Sterling; the other, created by a clearly offside David Silva. In fact, when Alexandre Lacazette belted in his goal on the 65th minute mark and Arsenal imposed themselves on the contest for the first time in the game, there was still hope that a 2-1 deficit could be salvaged as a 2-2 draw. This was not to be, of course, as the linesman ignored a blatant offside, Arsenal’s rearguard forgot that canon of professional football, playing to the whistle, and the team paid the price.
Amidst all the recriminations that followed the final whistle, a persistent question that has arisen (and in fact had arisen the moment the team sheets were announced), was why Lacazette did not start this game. But while this is an important question, it is an incomplete one – part of a much bigger problem in terms of how the team was set up.
The problem was that Lacazette’s omission wasn’t the only obviously wrong tactical decision. It was also blatantly ridiculous to play Francis Coquelin as the middle centre-back. As was the decision to play Mesut Ozil in a game where we knew we would have our backs to the wall, and would need players on the pitch who could not only track back, but also deal with a high press, neither of which are within the German’s comfort zone.
Linking all these daft decisions was Arsene Wenger’s choice to retain the 3-4-2-1, even though we didn’t have 3 fit centre-backs (hence the deployment of Coquelin), and even though this left us outnumbered and overrun in midfield, where Xhaka and Ramsey were up against one of the most in-form midfield trios in Europe right now.
Silva, De Bruyne and Fernandinho utterly dominated the midfield, and it wasn’t even just about numerical superiority – though that was also evident. They were also a class above the Arsenal midfield, combining Fernandinho’s clever reading of the game with Silva’s insightful movement and passing, and De Bruyne’s vision. Time and time again they created opportunities for Sterling and Sane to get beyond the defence, and we were lucky to go into the break only one down.
Despite having clearly got it wrong, Wenger didn’t change the setup till after City’s second goal, bringing Lacazette on for Coquelin and switching to a 4-1-2-3, which, although potentially leaving the back 4 a bit exposed, gave us a lot more bite in midfield and attack. For a brief while, Arsenal disrupted City’s passing patterns, and won the ball back higher up the pitch, creating chances (including Lacazette’s goal).
Given how the 3-4-2-1 had not worked at all, it is painful to see that Wenger didn’t make any changes to the system in the first half itself. We were being overrun at the time, something which could have been countered by the simple tactic of making Coquelin step up into midfield and either partner Xhaka at the base of a 4-2-3-1 or form a midfield 3 with Ramsey as well.
And yet, not only did Wenger not tinker with things even though something was drastically needed, he didn’t change anything at half-time either. This lack of tactical flexibility is not exactly a surprise, but surely, surely when going up against the form team in the division, when you can see that things are not just not working, but threatening to leave you at the wrong end of a cricket score, you have to be willing to tweak things slightly.
That Wenger, with all his experience, can’t see that, speaks volumes about his diminished ability to compete with the best managers around him. And unfortunately, this diminishing has meant that not only are we not serious title challengers, but that we aren’t even managing to play attractive football and achieve some sort of doomed glory while losing matches, a meagre consolation we used to be able to hang onto.