There is now a truth to ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ – but is it a bad thing?
Last season, Arsene Wenger was able to rely on Robin van Persie in order to form a late charge on the top four in the Premier League. This season, the Arsenal manager may be holding another ace up his sleeve – except we won’t really know how influential it is until sometime in May.
That’s the erratic nature of football –or is it fun? Being able to make a bold decision one week which swings the entire season in your favour when the game looked up. But Arsenal has needed to go back to basics when all hope seemed lost. The traditional Arsenal we’ve known under Wenger has been done away with and a defensive game has been adopted.
It’s a sad state when it’s come to this: a club who have long been considered the most attractive football team in England having to resort to a ‘back-to-basics’ approach. But Wenger should receive plenty of praise for having the ability to once again potentially turn this whole thing around. Well maybe not quite unwavering admiration. After all, this is Wenger’s team that he’s assembled. These are players who were identified as good enough for his brand of football by a group of scouts under his watch. For all the attention to detail and the meticulous building of this football club under Wenger, I fail to believe that his scouts haven’t been drilled in properly identifying players who are good enough for Arsenal.
It’s been far too long since Arsenal have played that free-flowing football that was once described as “from another planet” by van Persie. It’s been too long since a sustained period of time in a campaign was built on the theme of irresistible football and a style of play that genuinely was stunning.
In truth, it wasn’t too long ago. The last time Arsenal had a fantastic football approach to their game was the 2010-11 season, where one of the highlights of the campaign saw a commentator describe the team’s winning goal as a “Barcelona goal from Arsenal,” when they defeated Pep Guardiola’s side at the Emirates.
But the swing in approach and quality has been too quick and too severe. Wenger made a late dip into the transfer market for a group of players who really weren’t suited to his ideals of the game. You have to ask sometimes whether the manager is consciously buying pieces to a puzzle or if he’s just snapping up what’s available at a decent price.
When Arsenal made the call to Everton and eventually sealed the signing of Mikel Arteta, did Wenger really intend for the Spaniard to play as the team’s holding midfielder? Surely not. Surely most were right on the money when it was assumed that Arteta was the replacement for Cesc Fabregas, albeit one who was nowhere near the same class in terms of quality and ability.
So if Arsenal’s last two games – two 2-0 wins away at Bayern and Swansea – are a conscious effort to turn things around, why has it come so late?
Wasn’t it fairly obvious that there were not enough players in this team to play the style of football that was most recently executed by those headed by Fabregas? Santi Cazorla and Arteta, and then only some way into this season did Jack Wilshere appear. It wasn’t enough and the tactical approach – if we’re going to call it that – wasn’t suitable to what was on offer. You then go back to the question that has been asked countless times: is Wenger making the most of what he has at his disposal?
But this different approach has been a long time coming. Players like Aaron Ramsey and Carl Jenkinson are far better at getting ‘stuck in’ and rolling up their sleeves than they are at imitating Barcelona or Ajax. Sure, Ramsey could become one of those players in the future, but with a whole team and club down on confidence, the only option Wenger had was to take a far more basic approach.
I don’t believe all of Arsenal’s good defensive work over the past two games has solely been linked to the absence of Thomas Vermaelen. Per Mertesacker stated over the weekend that the team were analysing their defensive performance against Tottenham with a view to improving. Mertesacker, notably, is a defender who stays deep and denies the opposition space in behind. Recent performances completely fly in the face of those who have said the German is one of the worst defenders in the league. The point is, even the very best will be made to look like amateurs if they’re used in the wrong system.
Now, it’s very difficult to know what exactly goes on inside the walls of London Colney, and most of what is said by outsiders is largely speculation. But when have you ever heard of Wenger instructing his coaches and players to go over the tapes of recent performances with the intention of eradicating mistakes? The Arsenal manager always seems to be about sending his team out to win at their own game first, rather than countering the threat of the opposition. If Wenger really is taking this on board, then it couldn’t come soon enough.