Arsenal have been on an awful run of form since the last international break. Dreadful away to Norwich, not much better at home to QPR, fortunate to escape with a point from two games against Schalke in the Champions League and a very humbling defeat at Old Trafford have all highlighted their deficiencies.
Surprisingly for an Arsène Wenger team, they have struggled to create chances throughout the season (the 6-1 battering of a very welcoming Southampton aside). It’s been discussed over and over already but the loss of Robin van Persie was obviously going to take time to get used to, while it can’t help that the front four were all strangers to each other as the season kicked off. A lack of fluency was to be expected initially, that’s just the unfortunate situation Arsenal were in, but as the dust settled there seems to be an underlying problem coming to the surface.
All great teams must have an identity, a characteristic about them that separates them from everyone else. But the problem is this Arsenal side does not have one, it just doesn’t know what it is.
During Wenger’s first decade, his teams were pace and power personified. They were obviously technically superb but that was married with these raw physical attributes which took them to another level. Ex-pros from that era often talk about standing in the tunnel next to the 2004 team and being intimated by the size and strength of them.
And who could forget the blistering pace that formed part of the team. The amount of times they would break from defending corners and be on goal within seconds was at times terrifying. Some teams took to keeping several players back from attacking corners purely out of fear. From the 1998 double winners through to that unbeaten side, pace and power were the constants.
As that group of players faded, there is no doubt that Wenger turned his focus towards conquering the one thing that had eluded him throughout his distinguished managerial career, the European Cup (or Champions League in today’s language). With the emergence of his new Spanish starlet, plucked from Barcelona, the identity of the team was transformed. The power was almost completely removed and instead they became the masters of possession.
With Cesc Fabregas as the spearhead of his new side, Wenger turned towards the ideals of pure football. The team was built around the ability to constantly recycle possession in all areas of the field, relying on short passing, fluid movement and a high level of technical ability. With players such as Fabregas, van Persie, Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin (before the laziness) they were a joy to watch on their day.
When it clicked, the football flowed and it was great to watch. They rightfully earned the tag of the best footballing side in the country and their new identity was confirmed. To play in that manner was the ‘Arsenal way’ (on these shores at least, obviously Barcelona were the true masters of the art). Unfortunately, what also characterised that group of players was a mental fragility that would rear its ugly head at the worst possible moments. It was the reason that they were unable to secure trophies because they were undoubtedly good enough.
And now, well now they just have no identity at all, no defining characteristic about the way they play. Lacking the technical ability to replicate the football of Fabregas et al, they are a poor man’s version of that side, often bereft of ideas and unable to break down well drilled defences. Before the away game against Schalke they had recorded the lowest shots on target of any team in this season’s Champions League – a shocking statistic for a team with a supposed attacking philosophy.
They are not a physically intimidating side with the absence of Abou Diaby, who could hardly be described as a warrior, creating a lack of physical presence. Neither are they a counter-attacking team, with a complete lack of pace in the team that travelled to Old Trafford. The return to fitness of Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain plus Theo Walcott will remedy this latter problem to an extent, but they do not have the devastating impact to go with the pace that Wenger’s previous teams have. They do not even whip in crosses (or accurate ones at least) despite the presence of Olivier Giroud.
They have become, dare I say it, boring. Retaining possession and doing little with it is not the pure footballing ideal that Wenger wanted to achieve. Instead it is predictable and dull, far too easy for opposition teams to work out and contain.
So rather than being a poor imitation of the latest side, maybe this is the time to create a new identity, a new Arsenal. As I mentioned, they seemingly lack the characteristics to excel in any particular manner so instead a focus on being flexible may be the best approach. Tactical stubbornness has always been one of Wenger’s worst traits – he played one system for a decade and then switched to the current one with Fabregas’ group – but now this needs to change.
Given the nature of the resources at his disposal, a different approach to different opposition may be the best way forward for now, starting with Fulham at home this weekend. Given the past month, this game takes on added importance as the side needs to return to winning ways sooner rather than later.
So, against opposition which they are superior to on paper, why not ditch the current system and go with two strikers. Their forwards are arguably more suited to playing in pairs anyway; Giroud certainly could do with the support, while it would give Wenger a chance to unleash Theo Walcott in his preferred and best position. Two up top certainly worked in the Capital One Cup game, when they switched early in the second half and the goals subsequently flowed. It is not a system for all occasions but there will be times when it appears to be the best plan with this squad.
It’s been said a few times but sometimes Wenger’s stubbornness works as a hindrance. Given the poor form and the fact that this is still a relatively early stage in the season, it may be time to try some new ideas and ultimately find their new identity.