Good day, fellow Gooners!
I hope you had an excellent Christmas & New Year break and enjoyed the encouraging wins against West Brom and Crystal Palace.
It must be said that we weren’t at our best in terms of performance and quality of our football but those six points did a lot of good; it’s undeniable that we were under huge pressure after the back-to-back defeats against Everton and Manchester City, especially sEwing the way we conceded defeat, and it’s pleasant to see that the team responded quite well.
It will take more than two largely expected home wins against average opponents to restore some positivity and faith around the team, however I feel that the recent improvements should give some perspective to the hurtful losses at Goodison Park and at the Etihad Stadium.
We were terrible for 45 minutes in both games but, before that, we were in full control and deservedly ahead on the scoresheet; it doesn’t justify the spectacular fall we witnessed at both grounds but in both cases we were undeniably penalised by refereeing mistakes and – as we all know – top-flight football is often decided by episodes.
We surely didn’t deserve anything more than a loss against a spirited Everton team and a clinical Manchester City side, yet I feel the narrative would have been different, had we rescued a point thanks to the stonewall penalty we were denied against Everton and had Sané’s goal been cancelled, as expected.
On a side note, straight after the final whistle at the Etihad Stadium Arsène Wenger wasn’t yelling at the fourth official about the offside decisions, he was rightly protesting against the pantomime that Martin Atkinson built around the very last free-kick we were meant to have: he delayed it until it was too late for us to finally take it – he could have immediately blown the final whistle, instead.
Anyhoo, I wish I could share these words with you earlier because what follows is mainly a reply to Victor’s thoughtful article about how Arsène Wenger is dragging the Club back with his “obsolete ideas”.
In no possible way my words are aimed at Victor himself, a life-long Arsenal fan who I respect a lot and often have very interesting discussions with, but I felt I needed to counter his views.
Those of you who read my columns regularly know how much of an admirer of our manager I am and – despite not being an Arsène Wenger’s disciple or vilifying any criticism aimed at him (to use Victor’s own words) – I felt the need to bring some “empirical evidences” to support my “logical reasons” and explain why those two defeats are not the end of our season and Arsène Wenger isn’t the only reason behind our recent struggles.
For those who forgot, Victor’s blog cited the lack of commitment, fight, tactical plan, inspiration from the manager and use of tactical substitutes, combined with key players (i.e. Özil) disappearing and a general willingness to accept defeat without any effort to overcome adversity.
I must admit I didn’t agree with any of the seven points included in this list and I will try to explain why – starting from the perceived lack of commitment and fight, which inevitably mix with the reluctance to overcome adversity: I’ve seen the team going one down in Paris within a minute and literally chase shadows for the opening thirty minutes, yet we came home with a solid point and even had the chance to win it; I’ve seen the team going two goals down in Ludogorets to finally grab the three points; I’ve seen the team struggle to break down teams like Southampton, Burnley and West Brom but finally get the wins with the very last kick of the game and I’ve seen the team trailing Manchester United for the majority of the game and yet come back to London unbeaten.
To me, it shows that the players possess the never-say-die attitude that could make the difference throughout the season; if you believed the “stuff champions are made of” rhetoric that applied to Manchester United and Chelsea under Sir Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho – respectively – when they were winning despite playing badly, it should apply to the Arsenal and Arsène Wenger, too.
One might say that the approach was wrong, since we had to chase the result in each of the aforementioned games, but it’s also true that we are the only team yet to trail at half-time in the Premier League, which indicates that players have their minds focussed on the job from the very beginning.
We scored inside the first 20 minutes against Watford, Hull City, Chelsea (twice), Sunderland, Bournemouth, Everton, Manchester City and Crystal Palace in the Premier League, plus Basel (home and away) and Ludogorets in the Champions League, and we hit the back of the net within 30 minutes against Liverpool, Southampton (from one down), Swansea and West Ham.
Can we say that the Arsenal players were switched on for the large majority of our games, so far this season? I think so and I also think that Arsène Wenger inspiration is not alien to this process, which explains why I don’t agree on this point of Victor’s list neither.
I’ve got three points left: Arsène Wenger’s inability to make tactical substitutions, the lack of a plan for the team and Mesut Özil’s no-show in some specific games.
Let me tackle the Mesut Özil problem straight away: if you didn’t get his football style by now, you never will.
Do you really expect Mesut Özil to jump into a sliding tackle? Do you really expect him to challenge a ball in the air? He never did it in his whole career, he won’t start today.
Despite regularly topping the charts of our most-industrious players – as much as perceived fighters like Alexis Sánchez and Francis Coquelin – and shaping his upper body to better deal with the Cattermoles of the Premier League, he’s still seen as a lazy, weak player; he made some tremendous improvements on his physical commitment and defensive efforts, yet he’s the first Arsenal player to be targeted as soon as things turn sour on the pitch.
Those who have seen Mesut Özil play for Werder Bremen, Real Madrid and Germany already knew that he’s not a driving force, he’s not the man that will take the ball, dribble it past ten players and smash it past the goalkeeper; he’s a facilitator, he’s the link between midfield and attack, the one that makes football look good and easy.
He’s silky, he’s languid and has the most amazing vision you’ll see in the Premier League but he’s not an aggressive player in the shape of Gerrard – like it or not. Would you swap Gerrard with Özil? I wouldn’t.
He’s always available to receive the ball in dangerous areas and relatively pressure-free, he’s already seen in his mind how players will move and picks the right pass at the right moment at an incredibly regular rate but if there’s no movement around him or if he’s not 100% fit, he’ll struggle to have an impact whatsoever.
I’m not justifying him or anything like that but he disappeared against Manchester City because we were unable to bring the ball out of our half, simple as that.
Could have Arsène Wenger taken him off?
Certainly yes but he didn’t – which is obviously not Mesut Özil’s fault.
Let’s chat tactics, now.
Victor’s blog states that we’re lacking a tactical plan, which I find curious: Alexis is finally working as a centre-forward, Theo Walcott is causing havoc from the right-wing and Mesut Özil has been in the form of his life until the recent dip; moreover, Alex Iwobi is growing in stature and Olivier Giroud, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lucas shown they can have a huge impact off the bench.
The team looks exciting to watch, we’ve rarely been as aggressive and positive and never had such depth for each position; we were totally unpredictable and breath-taking against Watford, Hull City, West Ham, Ludogorets, Basel and – most notably – Chelsea already this season, with each of those opponents unable to read the movement of our forwards and stop us from scoring goals.
At the back we found a great addition in Shkodran Mustafi, whose speed and aggressive style allowed us to press higher and win the ball back in more dangerous areas.
To me, it sounds like a plan. It worked wonderfully well in the games I mentioned and less well in other occasions but the team knows how to do, apparently.
Moreover, the presence of Olivier Giroud gave us the long-awaited Plan B we’ve been lacking for years: is the passing-around-the-box strategy not working? No issues, bring in the Big Handsome French and add some steel and muscles to the front line!
Of course we looked a bit lost in chunks of certain games but you can’t expect any team to be on top of their game all the time; Chelsea are putting together an unbelievable streak of consecutive wins but they will also drop some points, sooner rather than later – it’s physiological.
We won 12 of our opening 19 games, drawing 4 and losing 3, we have the third best attacking and defensive records in the league – numbers that a tactically unprepared team cannot reach.
The funny thing is that we’re laughed at by The Sun for having this kind of alternative tactical approach, after being laughed at for years for not having a Plan B.
Interestingly enough, the article that Victor chose to bring “conclusive proof” of Arsène Wenger’s predictability and inability to change the dynamic of a game through substitutions is bringing up the counter opinion itself, probably without even realizing its irony.
Mark Irwin starts his article with these words:
“Sixty-five minutes gone, send on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Alex Iwobi. Swap one winger for another and hope that will somehow stem the tide.”
This sentence is the proof of its author’s ineptitude as anyone watching football – even sporadically – would know that swapping a playmaker like Iwobi with a direct, quick player like Chamberlain could actually change a game – although both are named as wingers.
The writer then continues:
“If that does not work, there is always Plan B. Stick Olivier Giroud up front for the last 15 minutes and lump it long to the big fella.”
Again, this is one way to change the momentum of a game – it doesn’t automatically work but it surely changes the way the team is playing; going from a short, pacey striker like Alexis to a towering force like Olivier Giroud could actually destabilise a defensive line, especially if opponents are tiring.
On the top of that, the sumptuous idea to stick Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at right-back against Manchester United and the numerous transformations that changed a few players’ fortunes and careers – notably Lauren from midfielder to right-back, Kolo Touré from right midfielder to centre-half or Emmanuel Petit from centre-half to midfielder – also deserve a mention to challenge the idea that Arsène Wenger didn’t evolve tactically.
Labelling someone like Arsène Wenger, who started with a plain 4-4-2 to transform it into 4-4-1-1 (Bergkamp’s late years), 4-3-3 (Arshavin, Bendtner, van Persie) and 4-2-3-1 (Nasri, Fábregas and Arshavin behind van Persie) and finally to our hybrid formation, as a predictable manager sounds a bit harsh, especially considering that his last major tactical shift happened less than three months ago, against everyone’s opinion that the team wouldn’t work with Alexis upfront.
I am not sure what conclusive proof Mark Irwin’s article is bringing up with his analysis, Arsène Wenger has always given his starting XI at least one hour of playing time before making any substitutions – both when the Invincibles were dominating that league and when we were struggling to make the top four.
Would an earlier substitution have won us a game we lost? Maybe but neither Mark Irwin nor Victor, myself or anyone else could tell as there are too many variables to make a call.
In-game substitutions are one of the most debated things in football and even when they work, they are source of arguments: would have we dominated Manchester United, had game-changers Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Olivier Giroud started? We’ll never know.
Don’t even bother mention the AKB/WOB categories (are we still at primary school??) but I’m not sure Arsène Wenger is guilty of what Victor is saying and I surely won’t label his ideas as obsolete, nor accuse the team of not having the fighting attitude and great spirit the manager is often mentioning, as we’ve already fought back to get positive results against the odds a few times this season.
If there’s something Arsène Wenger is guilty of, though, it is not rotating his players enough: it costed us a few injuries already – Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla, to name two – and also costed us some results because our key figures played too many minutes (Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez above all but also Granit Xhaka and Nacho Monreal) while others seemed to deserve more playing time (Lucas Pérez and Kieran Gibbs, for example) and didn’t get much.
Each season is long and tortuous and you need all your players to be as sharp as possible, which means that you should jump on every occasions to rest your most important individuals: Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil played the full 90 minutes in Ludogorets and over 70 minutes in Basel, with very little to play for, with the foreseen result of both being heavy and run out of steam in more important games.
It might be unfair to the spirit of the competition but it would be beneficial for us.
To conclude, our manager isn’t the best nor the worst of the lot, he has some strong points and some weaknesses like Klopp, Conte, Mourinho and Guardiola, who are all struggling or have struggled to reach a real consistency this season; taking two losses – although infuriating – like the ones against Everton and Manchester City to mount a case of Arsène Wenger being a liability and our season being already doomed doesn’t sound very mature.
You know, we might finish the season in 4th place but it won’t surely be because of those two performances, nor because of Arsène Wenger and his obsolete ideas.
I’m not here to convince you about anything, I just hope I gave you some food for thought, at least.