Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Arsenal Troubles Run Deep and Narrow

So another season, another early Arsenal disappointment. Really, Arsenal should be on nine points and hailed as a potential rival to City and Chelsea for the crown. But as seems to be the case every year since the Invincibles, Arsenal have started with as many questions as answers, already finding themselves five points behind the leaders after only three games. The opening 2-0 loss to West Ham was clearly an outlier, with Cech having a terrible game and Arsenal missing far too many chances to score. On the other hand, this appears to be a burgeoning habit having failed to score in five or their last six at the Emirates, where they have generally been imperious over the past few years. The second game brought three points, but not without a scare, as their slender 1-0 lead evaporated before a somewhat lucky winner from Sanchez (with the help of a defensive own goal). And then there was the game against Liverpool. Arsenal dominated the second half, but should have been 1-0 up after an eighth-minute opener was incorrectly ruled offsides. This seems to be missing from many of the pundit critiques currently flying across the digital waves. Yet they had plenty of chances to score in the second, missed by Giroud (arguably three), Sanchez (at least one great chance) and Gabriel (though one should never fault a defender for failing to win the game in the closing seconds). Four points from nine, with a loss and draw at home (and no goals) is not the beginning one envisioned, particularly after Wenger finally beat his bitter rival Mourinho in the Community Shield the week before the season began.

So what is the problem at Arsenal? In an ironic twist that only Arsenal fans can truly appreciate, it is our offensive play that has floundered in the past eight games or so, going back to last season (forgoing the 4-1 win against a West Brom team playing for absolutely nothing), and our defensive solidity vastly improved. Sure Liverpool could have scored three times in the first half, but Cech atoned for the opening day performance by showing why Arsenal fans were so happy when he arrived. He lost the team a point in the opening game and then grabbed it right back in the third. One assumes he will be on the positive side of that equation within a few weeks. Even with a makeshift backline of Gabriel, who impressed thoroughly, and Chambers, who still needs to work on his positioning and passing out of the back, the Gunners kept a clean sheet. They were rampant in the second half of the game on Monday and disposed Liverpool players or intercepted passes at a rate that reminded of Barcelona in their heyday. The problem now is in attack, and there appears no easy answers to solving it, even if the pundits – including me – often argue that a World Class striker will make fait accompli a serious Arsenal challenge at the title.

Let’s look at the deeper problem in depth. Giroud only scores in about 2 of 5 games (he has 42 goals in his first 100 appearances, which is not at all bad), which means someone else needs to score in the other 3 (and he sometimes scores two in a game, so maybe even other 4). Ox does seem to be the best option out of the midfield right now, but he has to improve just a little with his finishing, as he is close to scoring far too often without the end result. Ramsey did score, though it was disallowed, and could come back into form, but he needs to work on his discipline. He does appear to be playing with increased confidence the past several games, though I still think he tries to be too cute too often and loses possession a little more often than seems necessary. I'd also like to see Ozil take a few more shots, as he places the ball so well and could be a strong connect point for their incisive passing game with a deft touch and decent finish. And, of course, Sanchez could fill in for a lot of those necessary goals but he definitely seems off after the Copa America, odd since the World Cup didn't seem to impact his season last term. Even going back to last year, he has only scored in one of their last nine league games (a brace that makes the numbers look better). The reality is that all the passing in the world cannot win you games if no one is finishing those intricate passing moves off. Sanchez missed a great chance to score, Giroud missed three and others were also guilty of squandering chances against Liverpool. At the heart is not even taking the shot, as the Gunners went long spells without even taking a shot. Ramsey solved the problem during the run two seasons ago by going on a hot streak and Giroud did so with his own hot streak during their nine-win streak last season. Yet what happens when either of them fails to score? Sanchez took up the slack in a disappointing first half last season that would have otherwise been truly disastrous, but defenders are growing more accustomed to his moves and making it harder for him to find the room to even get his shots off at the moment.

A new striker like Cavani could solve some of these problems, having scored at a clip of about 1 in 1.5 for PSG, if the French club decide to let him go. That is a big “if” at the moment, though, as there are rumors they are trying to offload Ibrahimovic before the window closes. Would they really let that many goals leave in one week, just as they are moving to a position where they think they can take a real shot at the Champions League? It seems doubtful to me, though Cavani could maybe push through a move, as he is tired of playing out of position for the club to accommodate Ibra. Beyond Cavani, and the pipedream of Benzema, there are few options left. Arsenal could have gone for Lacazette, but now he has signed a new contract and seems unlikely to go. Bayern appear to have a surfeit of forwards, but also appear unwilling to let any of them go. Muller might be the perfect player in this regard and Lewandowski would be a real steal. Again both seem unlikely. And then there is Higuain, who we looked certain to purchase two summers ago before being outbid by Napoli. Now they want to double the price for us to buy him, when we weren’t even willing to match half that sum two summers ago. So Arsenal might be stuck in the wilderness again, with Wenger’s arrogance, or naivety, or downright ignorance leading to this situation.

The reason I wrote the problem runs deeper, however, is because beyond the multifaceted Benzema, I’m not sure any of them will solve the fundamental problem of balance right now. Coquelin has been a huge and welcome surprise for Arsenal, maybe at the heart of Wenger’s decision not to buy in the other position they have needed for years, but he is a player that has two shortcomings that will probably hurt the Gunners this year: 1. He will miss games due to a likely red card or two, or the accumulation of 5 yellows he is certain to do at least twice over the course of a 38-game season and, 2. His range of passing appears to be stunting the Arsenal attack, with his long diagonal passes too often hit long and his ability to hit the right man for the counter suspect at best. He has shorn up the defense, and seems to have a positive impact on the players around him, as Arsenal were impressive in the second half in the midfield, dispossessing Liverpool over and over again, but seems to be stunting the offense at the same time. The problem is balance. Coquelin either needs to improve his passing or Ramsey should be moved back into the center and maybe push Cazorla out to the wing. It might be a waste of his talent, but the reality is that Arsenal are not getting the ball forward with enough pace or intent. That could be resolved by pushing Walcott or Ox to the right wing with Sanchez continuing on the left, but then Ramsey or Cazorla have to sit out. The alternative is to find a DM that has better passing range from the back, putting Ramsey beside him, Walcott or Ox on the wing and Sanchez on the other side with Ozil in the hole. That could have been taken care of this summer by signing either Schneiderlin, who seemed keen to join, or going back in for Khedira, now playing in Italy (though injured again, so maybe a positive missed opportunity in the end). The problem is this option leaves one of our best players on the bench (either Cazorla or Ozil).

What is the answer, then? I'm really not sure at the moment. One issue is clearly adding more width to their attack. In recent games, the Gunners have lined up most of their players from the middle to the left, with only Bellerin sitting across, often unmarked. This is not the case when Ox or Walcott is in, but they otherwise appear to be trying to score in a smaller window where the channels can be easily clamped shut by overloading on that side. That is what Liverpool did in the second half and Arsenal just about ran out of ideas after a few missed chances, with several shots from range and a couple of free kicks the only alternative. Creating that width on both flanks is imperative now, as it forces opponents to defend wider, as we can see with the success of Swansea and even Crystal Palace, using their wingers to great effect (and more obviously with Man City). Forgoing that rather obvious adjustment, maybe Arsenal should consider lining Arteta up alongside Ramsey for lighter competition and maybe giving Cazorla some time in the #10, with Ozil taking a breather. He is playing very well, but needs more efficiency and forward thrust from those around them. In that regard, Ramsey and Ox are arguably the best players to take advantage of his creativity, while Walcott is most likely to benefit from Cazorla and Ozil passing to the flanks on the break. That would mean absorbing more pressure and having cooler heads at the back, an issue that should be resolved when Mertesacker and Koscielny return.

With a possession first game, a more dynamic striker is clearly necessary and if Arsenal are going to absorb some pressure to open up the counter game, as they did more often during the winning streak from January through March, then I think Walcott is the better choice through the middle. The problem there is his holdup play is below par most of the time (though Giroud did not do much better against Liverpool, beaten by Skrtel on most of the 50/50 balls in the air). The key issue is the balance of the squad, and while Wenger already has too many creative-minded midfielders without sufficient defensive skills, another option at striker and a more well-rounded DM would really help the cause. The question that then remains is what the hell to do with Wilshere when he returns. There are four competitions, so he'll get games, but does he really fit into the system as it is currently configured? I think the only way is if he moved to the deeper lying midfield role, but that will mean displacing Coquelin (unlikely) or Cazorla/Ramsey. No easy answers at the moment, though hopefully some will come against Newcastle.

Man City have shown what a balanced side can do, as Chelsea did last term. They can interchange on the offensive end, use the wingers to open up space, rely on two deeper lying midfielders that can add an extra layer of defense and come forward when necessary and a back four that show solidity and strong communication. Their left and right backs can also get forward to add even more space and provide the sort of overlapping runs that City uses to such great effect (while the other sits back to cover any counterattacks). Chelsea still have that on the offensive end and through the midfield, but Fabergas’ lack of defensive tactical sense means they are a little more open to the counter and their defense has been in shambles. Liverpool and United have also started with solid defending, but they seem to lack the cutting edge on the offensive side – as Liverpool have really only scored one goal this year that should have counted, even if Benteke, Coutinho and Fermino look like a dangerous trio up front, and United must be worried about the lack of production of Rooney at the #9 (they have only scored two goals in three league games themselves). Arsenal will win more games, be at the cusp of the title challenge and probably fail again unless they solve this tactical aporia that for all the pundit bluster, is not nearly as obvious as they make it seem. On the other hand, who is really to blame at this point besides Wenger, who might make it 11 long years without a title if he cannot right the ship in the coming weeks?

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