Sometimes the universe just intervenes to put things in their rightful place.
Like the mischievous time traveller who attempts to kill his own grandfather just to see what happens, Arsene Wenger has, over the last six months, attempted to do everything possible to change the course of his team’s fatefully determined Arsenal-ness. But to no avail.
For the last decade, with a few minor alterations, Arsenal have followed the same pattern year after year. And although the same thing happened last season, Wenger seemed to resolve to change it by, for the first time since the 1990s, changing his formation to play a back three. In the summer, he bought Alexandre Lacazette, a £50m striker. And this season, he’s tried once again to alter that formation, only to see his sides beaten by bigger rivals and the likes of old enemies Stoke and Watford time and again.
Once again last weekend, Wenger lunged again at the fictional grandfather only to have an anvil appear out of nowhere and fall on his head. When he tries to poison the soup, someone else inexplicable drinks it instead. The universe just can’t countenance a successful Gunners side under Wenger in the second decade of the 21st century.
At the Etihad Stadium against Manchester City on Sunday afternoon, the universe corrected itself again. An offside goal put the game beyond the reach of the Gunners after Wenger was incensed by the award of a penalty after Nacho Monreal barged over Raheem Sterling inside the box at the start of the second half. All in all, though, City deserved their win.
And yet, despites all of that, Wenger has been criticised for years for his tactical inflexibility, and in this game, he played arguably his most fluid formation in recent years.
It will probably go down as a back three formation with Francis Coquelin slotting in between the two centre backs Laurent Koscielny and Monreal, but in reality, the French defensive midfielder was playing in his normal position, but dropping deeper when Arsenal found themselves without the ball – something which happens more often than not when playing away at the Etihad these days.
That’s not a tactical flourish you often expect from the Arsenal manager. His faith in two central midfielders sitting behind a number 10 has been absolute up until recently, but putting Coquelin behind two central midfidlers and then having him drop back between the centre-backs at times is something that was last seen properly in the Premier League when Michael Carrick played in that role under Louis van Gaal, though David Luiz’s role in the Chelsea team was very similar, even if he was a defender often stepping into the midfield from time to time, rather than a midfielder stepping into the defence.
The problem for Wenger is that he doesn’t really have the player to play in that role properly. Granit Xhaka isn’t disciplined enough, and Coquelin isn’t good enough on the ball.
You wouldn’t want to compare the passing ranges of Luiz and Carrick. They are different players with different skills, but Carrick is widely seen as one of the best passers in English football, and Luiz is notable as a centre back for his ability in that area, too. Coquelin certainly doesn’t have that in common with the other two, and so he does seem a strange choice to put in that role, especially in a game when playing out from the back is rarely an option against the high press and ability in possession that Manchester possess.
Wenger, like the time traveller, is a man out of time. It’s not new or even nice to say it, but as he looks increasingly irrelevant in modern football, his club suffers. From being Invincible well over a decade ago, to lowering expectations to title contenders, down to top four rivals and, now, Europa League also-rans, Arsenal are watching clubs like Tottenham and Manchester City pass them by.
Wenger’s tactical changes look more and more like the rage you feel at at the fading of the light.