The best way to describe Arsenal’s last two performances is that they simply turned up, although that’s definitely up for debate. There was nothing of a side who are capable of tearing through a defence and looking well inside that circle of teams who play good football. It was typically un-Arsenal, yet it was something supporters have become more and more used to over the past six years.
A number of people, including me, talked up the decision to move Gervinho into the central role and offer the team a different option going into games. Arsenal’s problem was that they were too predictable, too easy to defend against and had little imagination when nothing seemed to be coming off. Why then wouldn’t the manager opt for something a little different to act as alternative to Olivier Giroud?
The problem is, the game against Southampton, where Gervinho scored two and looked to be moving forward, was a one off, a fluke, a mask for what he really is. The player is not suited to leading the line for a team like Arsenal, nor is he good enough to play in the starting XI each week. But it’s not something that really falls in line with Arsene Wenger failing to land on his ideal XI. With Arsenal, you can never bank on a set of players becoming regulars over the course of the season; the probability for injury is simply too high.
Jack Wilshere, Lukas Podolski, Bacary Sagna and Mikel Arteta are among those who should be in the XI when all available. Abou Diaby might be an option too, and Kieran Gibbs is certainly the better choice over Andre Santos. But Wenger has become so over reliant on players with terrible injury records that it’s impossible to compliment Podolski or Santi Cazorla with quality each week.
When there is one weak link in the side, even while the surrounding players are capable of producing good performances, that one player comes to the fore and it’s obvious to see that they are bringing the rest of the side down. It was an issue when Wenger had Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie in his side and his decision not to supplement their qualities with players who matched up to what they were capable of. Instead, the manager persisted and continues to persist with those who are not up to the task. Instead of players like Santos or Gervinho—and there are a number of others to add to the list—becoming passengers, they act as an anchor which weighs down and slows the rest of the team.
It’s a combination of factors which sees Wenger stand in an unwavering position of confidence towards certain individuals and also not having his best options available. I’m sure the manager is aware that he can’t bank on his best players to stay fit all season, but he doesn’t want to move on those who have clearly not impressed. There are opportunities to strengthen and create a stronger team, but his best XI is a high concentration of good players with hints of those who contribute very little. It’s the classic “I don’t want to kill Denilson by buying a player who is better.”
It’s also worth pointing to the manager’s lack of desire to make the best of the players he does have available. As mentioned, it’s always good to have different options when facing different styles of opposition, and plenty of Arsenal fans have bemoaned the lack of a plan B. But are all these players suited to the current formation the manager wants to play?
Yes, there are a good number of players in the squad who work best to a 4-3-3 formation or some variation of it. However, as mentioned, there is always likely to be one or two who weigh the whole team down by not really fitting into the system. Sometimes you’ve got to wonder if Wenger buys his players with his desired tactics in mind or if it’s just a case of “he’ll do because the price is right.”
There’s no doubt that Arsenal should see an increase in fortunes on the pitch when Jack Wilshere returns and is able to partner Arteta and Cazorla. There’s purpose with those three in the middle; they all know what their roles are, and are all undoubtedly players of excellent quality. But when one drops out, the midfield becomes incredibly weak and lacking in direction. Although, Diaby can be a very good option when available—which is rarely.
Many are still firmly on side with Aaron Ramsey, and the majority are still incredibly sympathetic following his injury at Stoke. But he’s yet to totally convince when playing in the centre in a midfield three. He has plenty of work rate and has a lot of fight about him. But the question should be whether he compliments the other attackers well enough?
Gervinho, for example, is one of the prime reasons for Arsenal’s slow and sluggish attack. When Arsenal advocate this particular style of play, they need to use a quick and decisive attack to make it effective. But Gervinho doesn’t seem to know what to do at the best of times. He lacks vision to play in others, has awful ball control and doesn’t have any faith in his own ability to shoot. It’s still a shock that he’s currently the team’s top scorer.
Arsene Wenger does know his best XI, of that I’m very much convinced. The problem is his desire to mix quality with not very good. The injuries will always play a part, but he shows far too much faith in players who do little other than drag the rest of the team down. It shouldn’t be a great secret that once you dig past the good players in Arsenal’s best starting XI—Podolski, Arteta, Cazorla, Sagna, Szczesny etc—the rest of the squad doesn’t really raise much confidence.