It’s probably a lot earlier in the season than I was expecting to be writing this sort of piece, but after 2 games in the league and no real activity in the transfer market it seems like as good a time as any to start asking a few questions.
Arsenals’ catchcry during the early off-season/end of last season was “A catalyst for change”, Ivan Gazidis repeatedly mentioned the need to create an environment at the club that forced action to change an outdated approach and failed tactics at keeping the club at the top-level. When the 2 year extension of Arsene Wenger was announced finally, after months of damaging speculation and reluctance to be transparent with its players and fans alike, it hardly felt like the change we had been looking for. Given that we are all well and truly aware of the legendary stubbornness and rigidity of the gaffer, it seemed almost impossible to think that after so long in the role, Gazidis and the board would be able to exert enough pressure that would prompt the Frenchman into reinventing himself and the team. When we saw a tactical switch in the match against Middlesbrough in mid-April, in hindsight it looked like the pressure had finally cracked the dam wall. In isolation a formation change during the season is not really news, but when it’s Arsene Wenger making such a change it felt like a monumental moment in our season. It was the first time in 20 years that Wenger had dropped the back 4 and reverted to a back 3 that had existed in some form way back in the months before his tenure began. Back in the days when we had Keown, Bould & Adams all at their peak. The switch from a then successful defensive lineup to the updated back 4 was part of the innovation that Wenger bought to Highbury in those halcyon years where he innovated the game overall in England. As the years went by though, football progressed and in recent seasons the tactical switch to a defensive 3 has seen many lower teams in the league able to compete at a much higher level. Playing on the counter against their possession based elite opponents. Last season saw Chelsea storm away with the title off the switch to a back 3 setup with Spurs following suit and not far behind in the overall race. By the time we finally adopted the approach, the season was well and gone.
We saw the decision to deny the club a restructuring of its football department by creating a role for a Director of Football to come in and provide expert knowledge and assistance to Wenger to keep us relevant in both contractual and player movement areas. While we have brought in additions to the back room staff (Jens Lehman & Darren Burgess) these are all men who will report into Wenger, not challenge him on matters regarding the senior squad.
We came into the transfer window with some optimism, the early gossip and much hyped “chase for Mbappe” amounting to nothing more than filler in the transfer columns. The signing of Bundesliga Left back of the season on a bosman was a choice piece of business which was then followed by the July transfer of record signing Alex Lacazette for £52m. Soon after the excitement died down, the boss talked of the need to shed some of the weight in the squad before new additions could be considered again. The contract situations of several players rumbled through the rest of the preseason as we are well aware, all of which are still unresolved. 3 key players from last season now all have under 12 months remaining on their deals with Alexis and Chamberlain both unlikely to go on after that if we can keep them through this window. The once vaunted “British Core” are now seemingly on the scrap heap, but with so much invested in them during the last round of contract negotiations, there is a problem trying to move them on due to the high wages they are paid while basically playing smaller and smaller roles at the club. Jenkinson has been loaned out yet again. Gibbs and Wilshere look unlikely to ever play for us again. Ox & Theo are both up in the air. We are now forced into a position where we have to squeeze every last dollar out of any interested party and are then at the whim of the player to accept what would most likely constitute a pay cut in order to essentially go and perform more work…
While we have started the season continuing with the back 3 that brought us some success at the end of last season, over the course of the two games we have been far from convincing. We got lucky against the Foxes, it’s not every week that two subs will come on and rescue the game for you when you give up 3 simple goals. Stoke was just how the Leicester game would turn out the other 80% of the time. Sure, we had a few iffy calls from the ref but that shit is gonna happen throughout any season and when you simply don’t create or take the chances you make during open play and couple that together with goals that are totally preventable, you don’t have anywhere else to look but in the mirror.
Playing a back 3 works, when you play it with 3 centre halves. Hell, you can even get away with 2/3 there as we saw last season when Monreal joined up with Kos and Mustafi in the last line, but when Mustafi is your only out-and-out CB in a back 3 that’s asking for the whip. With Per Mertesacker (captain and FA Cup hero remember) sat on the bench and Rob Holding sitting next to Calum Chambers (England U/23 CB pairing this summer) in the stands sinking pints, it was kind of exacerbating to see Monreal and new Left back, Kolasinac, trying to anchor a formation that is beyond them. Not only this but we have shoehorned the Ox into the LWB and then RWB role, seemingly to give him the minutes he so desperately wants, when it is obvious that he cannot be a long-term solution for either position. Against Stoke, this meant that our premier Right sided defender was played at LWB. A position he has never started in for us previously.
For a squad so heavy on options and “impossible to manage” Arsene seems unwilling or unable to use the options that are currently available to him. The substitutions made over the weekend were baffling as well. Theo Walcott coming on with a Stoke team sitting back in lines so close together they could basically touch the shoulder of the bloke in front of them, yeh-nah mate it was never gonna work.
It’s off to Liverpool this weekend, in what now shapes as an absolutely season defining game. With the returns of Koscielny and Alexis both more than likely, we should see both of those guys step straight back into the 1st XI, but whether we see a continuation of the back 3 for another week or Ox/Bellerin on the right/left sides again, remains to be seen.
Wenger spoke during the past fortnight about the responsibility a manager has in giving younger players a chance to shine, even at the expense of points in the league. He has various options to go to, the question is – will he follow his own advice? How long until the pressure of early 2017 returns to the Emirates? Was the catalyst for change a simple rallying call to again appease fans who demanded something had to give?
We may see as early as this weekend.
You’re probably wondering where the hell that podcast we promised you is. I urge you to petition my co-host @MattyBAus and convince him to get himself up for 45 mins a week so we can bring his despondency to the airwaves. I’m worried about him, I think Arsenal are slipping from his heart.