Having won the FA Cup last season to end a nine year trophy drought, Arsenal and their fans looked forward to the 2014-15 season with genuine optimism – the club’s impressive 3-0 Community Shield win over Manchester City further buoyed the mood. Just seven competitive games into this season, however, the air of confidence around the Emirates seems to have evaporated and manager Arsene Wenger – who signed a three year contract extension in the wake of the FA Cup win – has been left to contemplate another difficult campaign in prospect. The recent comprehensive 2-0 defeat to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League exposed significant tactical failings and has left Wenger with some real work to do in order to turn the Gunners’ fortunes round.
Arsenal started last Premier League season in scintillating fashion, recovering from an opening day defeat to Aston Villa to go on a five game winning run and rise to the top of the Premier League table. This run up the table was, in large part, down to a defensive effort which saw the Gunners go 14 straight Premier League games without conceding more than one goal (after the 3-1 defeat by Villa).
Arsenal remained at the summit until the midway point in the season when they collapsed, first sacrificing their defensive record in a 6-3 defeat at Manchester City and then going on to suffer further heavy defeats at Chelsea, Everton and Liverpool. They finished the season clinging on to forth spot, finishing seven points clear of Everton (although the full story was far less simple than the divide suggests) and securing entry into the Champions League for the 17th successive season. The club’s progression to the group stages of this year’s competition was confirmed with an unconvincing 1-0 aggregate win over Besiktas in the qualifying round.
According to former striker John Hartson, the impact of Arsenal’s fall down the league table was lessened by their cup win but their defeat to Dortmund goes to show that their frailty in the big games remains; “Arsenal papered over the cracks last season, winning the FA Cup and just sneaking into the top four”, Hartson said. “Their performances against the big teams in the past few years have been unacceptable,” he added, mirroring the views of many Gunners fans. Arsenal legend Paul Merson was similarly critical following the game, revising his prediction of an Arsenal title challenge; ““We were sitting here beforehand saying they could win the league… but watching that they were a ‘gillion’ miles away from anything,” the 46 year old said.
The first – and potentially most fundamental – problem that Arsene Wenger faces is a lack of experienced, quality personnel in defence. Mainstay Bacary Sagna was allowed to leave the club for free in the summer, signing for rivals Manchester City after spending seven successful seasons with the club. Sagna was immediately replaced at right back by his fellow Frenchman Mathieu Debuchy, who signed from Newcastle United for £12m but, after just seven games with the club, he is now facing two months on the sidelines with an ankle injury.
Debuchy’s injury, along with Callum Chambers’ illness, Nacho Monreal’s slight knock and Wenger’s decision to send Carl Jenkinson out on loan to West Ham United left the lack of strength in Arsenal’s squad painfully exposed for trip to Dortmund. Wenger was forced to hand 19-year-old Spaniard Hector Bellerin only his second ever Arsenal appearance, in the club’s biggest game of the season so far. Whilst the lightning quick right back was confident before the game and was not at fault for either of Dortmund’s goals, it was far from ideal for Wenger to have to throw in an unproven youngster at such short notice. With the Arsenal defence having failed to keep a clean sheet in their four Premier League games so far, Bellerin’s addition will have done little to boost the confidence of the men at the back. Arsenal may still be a resounding favourite to qualify from Group D – a price of 2/7 – but it will be far from easy following this setback.
The confidence of Arsenal’s back four will also have been shaken by problems in the midfield ahead of them. The lack of a genuine holding midfielder left Laurent Koscielny and more particularly the slow-turning Per Mertesacker, painfully exposed to Dortmund’s attacks. Captain Mikel Arteta was overrun as Ciro Immobile opened the scoring in the 45th minute and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang doubled the Germans’ lead shortly afterwards. Arteta is a gifted ball player able to pick passes and spread the play, made in a similar mould to Steven Gerrard, but he has never had the pace or the legs of the Liverpool captain. As the former England man has aged, he has dropped further back and has successfully built a niche for himself in front of the back four- if Wenger has a similar plan for Arteta then it should be abandoned hastily and the former Everton man should drop down the Emirates pecking order.
Having discounted Arteta as a genuine holding option within the 4-1-4-1 formation that Wenger insists on playing, questions remain as to what the alternatives are. England manager Roy Hodgson seems to like Jack Wilshere in a deeper role, having started the 22 year old in the pocket ahead of Phil Jones and Gary Cahill in England’s victory over Switzerland in their recent European Championship qualification clash. Whilst the 2-0 win will have pleased Hodgson, the Wilshere experiment was not a resounding success and he looked lost at times, caught between the temptation of going forward to support the attack and staying back to provide cover and an outlet for more advanced players. Another problem that the experiment highlighted was Wilshere’s poor tackling technique and inability to break up the play. If Wilshere is to be considered as a genuine holding option, then his tackling must improve and he must spend less time on the floor. He must also be given the opportunity to grow into the role by Wenger- with Arsenal’s current plight, however, time is not a luxury that Wenger can afford.
The obvious choice in the holding midfield role has to be Frenchman Mathieu Flamini, who re-signed for the club from AC Milan at the beginning of last season. Although severely limited in terms of what he offers on the ball, Flamini can break up the play and will work far harder than the likes of Arteta to protect the central defenders behind him. Arsenal fans may long for the days when Patrick Vieira would make a crunching tackle in midfield before spraying a sixty yard pass and rampaging forward to support the attack but, unfortunately, there is nobody in their current squad with the ability to do that. Wenger must make Flamini a mainstay within the midfield in order to plug the holes at the back- he can worry about the team’s attacking threat later.
Making a firm choice about Wilshere’s position in the team and how to provide the time and space needed for the Englishman to develop as a holding midfielder would also help to solve another of Arsene Wenger’s headaches – namely, where to play Mesut Özil. The club’s record signing – a £42m capture from Real Madrid last summer – has thus far failed to live up to his billing. Stuck out on the left wing, Özil looks disinterested and has been accused by some of being lazy and out of form – he fails to track back when the full backs advance, exacerbating Arsenal’s existing defensive deficiencies. Continuing to select Özil out wide will not solve Wenger’s problem – it is not just that the German is out of form but also that his attitude is not conducive with playing out of position and working hard for the good of the team. Wenger must surely have the courage to either select Özil in a central role, giving him the licence to use his undoubted talent, or be willing to drop him. At the moment he is a passenger, but he may begin to shine if the ankle injury that Wilshere picked up against Dortmund keeps him out for any length of time.
Whilst Wilshere’s injury may prove to be a blessing for Wenger, one man that he can’t afford to lose is Wales captain Aaron Ramsey. Having been blighted by injury early in his career the 23-year-old, who publicly apologised in the wake of the Dortmund defeat, has become a key figure in the Arsenal attack. As much as the weakening of the Gunner’s defence was a catalyst for their slide down the table last term, Ramsey’s absence with a thigh injury between January and April was also pivotal. The former Cardiff City man had scored 13 goals in the first few months of the season and was seen as a genuine threat by opponents – this threat was never really replicated by any of Ramsey’s teammates in his absence.
Unfortunately for Wenger – who may wish to wrap the injury-prone Welshman in cotton wool – Arsenal’s need for goals this season is even greater than it was in 2013-14. Wenger may have signed forward Danny Welbeck from Manchester United for £16m but, as has been the case in recent years, there is still an over-reliance on goals from midfield. Welbeck missed a number of good chances against Dortmund – including two with the scores level at 0-0 – and in his two games at Arsenal so far, he has gone on to prove his critics right; he is a talented player but he lacks the finished product. Having had eight shots on goal so far in his Arsenal career, he has only hit the target on two occasions and this kind of form will simply not deliver the 20+ goals that Arsenal need to compete with the best in the Premier League.
Welbeck’s arrival at the Emirates was a direct result of the injury suffered by Olivier Giroud against Everton in August. With the Frenchman side-lined for up to four months with a broken tibia, Wenger had initially turned to Yaya Sanogo for goals but despite his willingness to run and offer an outlet he was clearly not going to hit the back of the net as regularly as required. Welbeck was a late panic buy to appease the Arsenal fans and applying the evidence of his season so far, he too will fail to adequately fill Giroud’s boots. As Welbeck’s two goals for England against Switzerland showed, he has got the ability to score and the potential to be just what Arsenal need, but they can’t afford to wait much longer for him to show it.
Arsene Wenger will be more acutely aware than anyone else of his team’s deficiencies, but he is the man with sole responsibility for resolving them. With the transfer window having slammed shut there is little option for Wenger to bring in new talent until January (other than looking at the free agent market) so he must make do with what he has within his squad already. In order for Arsenal to get the most out of their season and avoid further injuries to key men, Wenger must rotate his players and manage his resources well. Arsenal must decide where their focus is and go all out to achieve their goals, which may mean resting key players for some Premier League games or even leaving key men out of Champions League ties. Players such as Aaron Ramsey and Kieran Gibbs are unlikely to make it through the rest of the season without injury if they are not managed well, going on the evidence of past seasons.
For those Arsenal fans who endured nine barren years before the 2014 FA Cup win, the prospect of returning to the wilderness must be hard to take but, on the evidence of the first few weeks of the season, it is one that they may have to get used to.