Since winning the FA Cup at the end of last season, Arsenal went on to sign Chilean superstar Alexis Sanchez and replaced the key departures of Thomas Vermaelen and Bacary Sagna with the immensely talented youngster Calum Chambers and the solid Mathieu Debuchy respectively. They also added underrated striker Danny Welbeck and Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina to their ranks. With no major disruption (bar Sagna) to the team composition and some real quality added, many, certainly the majority of the Gooners expected Arsene Wenger and his boys to kick on from last season where they challenged for the title but saw themselves miss out after a barrage of untimely injuries and poor nerves in big games.
However, the Gunners have been off to a rocky start, to put it mildly. A succession of draws accompany two wins and a loss to London rivals Chelsea as the Gunners sit some way off the pace in the league table. A tame surrender to Dortmund apart, the Gunners sit comfortably close to knockout qualification in the champions league but again seem set to finish second in their group thereby increasing their chances of drawing a more difficult opponent.
Indeed, huffing and puffing to snatch an unlikely victory against plucky Anderlecht in the dying minutes of the game, Arsenal were some way off the pace that saw them rack up week after week at the top of the premier league table last season. Key injuries have surfaced again with Olivier Giroud, Mesut Ozil, Mathieu Debuchy, David Ospina and Aaron Ramsey missing key periods of the season.
Theo Walcott is yet to return after his gesture heroics in the North London Derby FA Cup tie in January while Laurent Koscielny seems to have simultaneously injured both Achilles tendons. If it wasn’t so pathetic, it might just have been funny.
So what’s wrong with Arsenal this season? Let’s take a look…
The formation of the Gunners has seen a changeover after the acquisition of Alexis Sanchez which has seen Arsene Wenger shift to an unconventional 4-1-4-1 formation to accommodate the brilliant Chilean along with the rest of the buffet of attacking midfielders at his disposal. While on FIFA 15 this seems to produce the desired results, realistically it seems to be having several flaws.
Arsenal do not have a defensive midfielder capable of manning the zone just ahead of the backline by himself. Mikel Arteta is a wonderfully technically gifted player but he isn’t physical enough to cope alone with the attentions of say, a particularly nasty Charlie Adam on a rainy day at Stoke. Working in tandem with a box to box engine like Aaron Ramsey or the tireless Alex Oxlade Chamberlain has produced better results. Even in the 4-1 thumping of Galatasaray, Arsenal played Santi Cazorla next to their defensive pivot, which while unconventional, made sure they dominated the game.
On a side note, it needs to be clarified that all the hue and cry about Mesut Ozil playing on the wing is completely blind of the issue at hand which is that Arsenal isn’t performing fluidly enough for the German to take advantage of a free role. While he does start on the left wing, as the club’s premier number 10, he has the license to roam wherever he can cause maximum damage and as such, his heat maps show that he does indeed have the freedom of the pitch. However, the passing and movement that are so integral to making a free role wreak havoc on the opposition have curiously been missing from this Arsenal team which is still struggling to make the transition to one holding midfielder. Indeed, as his interviews indicate, Arsene Wenger did approach the problem with the intent to sign a physically dominant midfielder in the summer but evidently failed and has vowed to right his mistake in January.
Another issue seems to be the ludicrous amount of injuries that Arsenal go through season after season. Despite the much lauded appointment of the German world cup winning team physio Shad Forsythe, injuries have struck heavy on Arsenal with laughably ridiculous injuries to Olivier Giroud and Mathieu Debuchy. The injuries to Ozil, Koscielny and Ospina however raise questions about rotation and management with Wenger’s reluctance to tinker with a winning team well known and thought by some to cause overexertion in players leading to injuries.
In the matches that Arsenal have struggled to impose so far, the pattern has been similar. The lion’s share of possession coupled with the inability to do anything with it and defensive shakiness that has seen them concede all too often to the opponent’s first and in most cases, only shot of the game. Play seems to break down either in the final third or just approaching it, leaving the defence open to a counter attack that simply cannot be shut down by whoever Wenger chooses to play as the lone holding midfielder. Peripherally, the issue seems to be a lack of understanding between players who are either confused as regards to positioning or have simply grown careless, accustomed to winning against the smaller teams after the results of last season.
Whether the team is still adapting tactically to the new additions and formation or there is a deeper problem is a big problem for Arsene Wenger to solve and one that all Gooners, certainly this one, hope he gets right.