Whether it’s down to stubbornness or a tactical ineptitude, Arsenal seem to approach every fixture as though it is the same. Now, after conceding a grand total of 17 goals in three away Premier League fixtures against the league’s three strongest sides, surely it is time to try a new approach?
A humiliating 6-0 loss at Stamford Bridge and limp draw against Swansea has once more confined Arsenal’s league season to a bitter struggle for Champions League football. Arsene Wenger seemingly set his side up to keep possession as they are prone to doing (much better at home I might add). But it became apparent from the first minute that Chelsea’s midfield duo of Nemanja Matic and David Luiz weren’t going to allow them the time and space to work the ball around. Mikel Arteta, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazorla were hurried in possession and gave the ball away sloppily in the build up to Chelsea’s first two goals.
The domination of Arsenal by Liverpool and Chelsea in recent games has really highlighted the weakness in the Arsenal boss’ set up. When in possession, the full-backs commit themselves high up the field in an attempt to provide options for the Arsenal midfield. When facing teams with the pace and the organisation of Chelsea and Liverpool, both Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have found themselves overrun by marauding bodies. It should be the job of the full-backs to provide options in order to ease the pressure, not go mindlessly rampaging forwards.
Furthermore, for all Oxlade-Chamberlain’s numerous qualities, a ball-playing, short passing, possession-centric footballer he is not. His passing can be wayward, and in midfield areas against teams that break with the pace of Chelsea it places the Arsenal defence under great pressure in the transition.
Last season, when the going got tough the Gunners got stuck in. The fashion in which they were able to grind out results with early goals and gritted teeth pushed them over the line, pipping Tottenham for Champions League football. Albeit they avoided most top teams in the final stretch, but nevertheless, Wenger’s side showed a side to their game that many felt was absent.
As not only Arsenal’s title hopes, but their Champions League hopes too, are in the balance, it may be worth channeling some of that fight from last year. The Gunners’ fantastic start to the season has seen them, at times, become complacent, almost ignoring the strengths of other sides. Instead of building on a rigid defensive performance in the big games, Arsenal have come out attempting to outplay their opposition. Away games against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea are not the time to dismiss the principles which allowed Arsenal to be in the position they have enjoyed most of the season.
The simple fact is that Arsenal’s players aren’t good enough right now to play in the manner they try against the best sides. And tactically, Wenger is too naïve. In his encounters with the media Wenger often speaks about ‘focusing on our own game’, or offers similar sentiments. As a man of experience it is simply infeasible to accept that he spends no time concentrating on the opposition. But at times it feels as though a little bit better preparation could go a long way. Instead, the Gunners inevitably revert back to the mean in a hope to claim victory. Wenger’s tactical predictability makes preparation for games far simpler than it does against the likes of Brendan Rodgers or Jose Mourinho; both managers who display their malleability in interpreting different situations and opponents, and adapt accordingly.
I would say Arsenal are lucky to be at home in the upcoming fixture against Manchester City, but with their ability to run riot, and Arsenal’s vulnerability against sides who press like City can and will, the potential for a painful defeat (especially off the back of the Chelsea result) is not beyond the realms of possibility.
Wenger needs to realise that when City come to town, he doesn’t possess the team of superior footballers. In order to get anything from the game defensive discipline and organisation will be the key. If they come at City as they have done against Chelsea and Liverpool, another capitulation may be on the cards. And if that’s the case, it may just spell the beginning of the end of Arsenal’s season.