Adam Wright returns with another installment of “Thoughts of an Arsenal fan”
So the transfer window has shut and Arsenal have cashed in on and bought in talent. Sanchez, Giroud, Coquelin and Walcott have all left the club in deals which have probably been reasonable for the club. Moreover I feel each player leaving has set themselves up for future success away from Arsenal, Olivier Giroud an absolute coup at £18m for Chelsea in a last minute roundabout strikers transfer triangle. Theo Walcott may come of age yet and watching his debut match this past week maybe we as Arsenal fans undervalued his ability and talents over the years, although this may be Theo’s chance to show England how big a player he can be. Again at £20m this could be a shrewd piece of business by Everton. Sanchez as we know has left in a free swap deal in which we obtained Mkhitaryan. He clearly by this point did want a future for Arsenal and so for me it’s a good thing he has gone really, let’s hope Manchester City’s dominance continues and prevents him achieving his premier and champions league ambitions. And finally Francis, never really cemented a place but a valuable player in his difference to the rest of the midfield, his ability to win the ball back allowed our more attack minded players the freedom to play forward, he could be the real miss having not been replaced with a similar talent of his ability.
It may have felt that we was being torn apart but nonetheless a strong team remains, maybe this season proved that we had a bloated squad and some trimming was required, many players would not want to be in the second eleven playing cup and substitute appearances through the season, especially in a world cup year. Giroud and Walcott had both done long services to the club and I hope all the best for their careers. So the next thing is where does leave Arsenal going forward?
Well let’s look at who came in, Henrik Mkhitaryan, a key player in Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund team that beat Bayern Munich to the Bundesliga and fell short to the same team in the 2013 champion’s league final. Playing best in the number 10 role behind the striker it will be interesting to see how Wenger manages him into the team. I think he will play a supporting role behind the striker alongside Mesut Ozil who, now on a new and £350,000 a week contract will surely cement his place as first choice to the 10 role. Mkhitaryan will I would imagine have to settle for a role on the left or right side of attack if Wenger plays a 4-2-3-1 formation. Alternatively, he could play the two together behind the striker if he continues to pursue the 3-4-2-1 formation he has been implementing since the rear end of last season. Hopefully Mkhitaryan feels more welcomed and valuable at Arsenal and id hope we can see more of his Dortmund days for us on the horizon.
Speaking of Dortmund, player number two in and our new transfer record at £56m Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. I have watched Aubameyang for years now and his pace is frightening, he is agile, looks to get behind often, shows plenty of creativity with the ball, and is willing to link up and more importantly scores goals. If we get the best from Aubameyang he could be the next big striker Arsenal have been craving since the departure of Robin Van Persie to Arsenal. Let’s face it Arsenal have not struggled over the years with big name 30 goal a season strikers – Ian Wright, Thierry Henry, Denis Bergkamp, Emmanuel Adebayor (yes for one season he did hit 30!) and Robin Van Persie. Perhaps this is where Arsenal fans never really completely took to Giroud, he was a very good striker but not the striker Arsenal fans have seen in seasons past. With Aubameyang’s flair we could be seeing the next big thing, so long as he is managed well. I spoke to a friend this week who is a Dortmund fan and he said Arsenal have bought poorly, that Aubameyang is hitting his twilight years and his focus has been lost in the last two seasons. He also thinks he will struggle with the lack of space in the premier league compared to the Bundesliga. It will be interesting to watch. I really hope Wenger plays him up top, Sorry Lacazette but you, like Giroud, are not the striker we want, Aubameyang becoming available has sprung Wenger to buy in. If Lacazette can be our Jemaine Defoe or like Giroud was then fine that goal impact will be crucial, I just hope Aubameyang does not get pushed out into the wider areas where I feel we will not see him at his very best for us.
So our attack as always is very healthy and very promising, looks creativity, lots of freedom to play, lots of players who can create or score goals. Our problem now is the back end of the team, the core, the base, and the defensive and central areas of our team. For me it is simple – to go forward we must look back to our past. Forget our philosophy at Arsenal for a second about looking forward we must look back to Early and pre-Wenger. George Graham – Mr 1-0 to the Arsenal! Build a strong base, be hard to beat, if we don’t concede we don’t lose, the rigid and solid philosophy the backbone of Wenger’s 1998 and 2002 double winning seasons. Dixon, Bould, Adams, Winterburn.
Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole. Our back four from 1998 to 2005 evolved but the influence of the Graham era and the players involved allowed a solid base for Wenger to build an attacking team, the balance was in the core – conceding few, scoring plenty. Defensive responsibility also laid with the midfield Vieira and Petit, succeeded by Gilberto Silva understood their defensive roles and at times gave more attacking freedom to the wider players to do the damage. Post Vieira and the shift went to a 3 man midfield or a 4-2-3-1 and more attack minded players were placed into the middle at the cost of balanced players. Attractive and fast football followed but at the cost of defensive exposure. That steely grit was lost and discouraged, teams came to Arsenal to get physical with them, to put them off playing and many got a result if they were willing to get physical, particularly at set pieces, a long call from the days of Vieira vs Keane. The evolution from the invincibles came with the maturing of Fabregas and development of smaller and more technically gifted players operating more frequently in the middle. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona would set this modern tone in the seasons to come with the introduction of his tiki-taka style.
But back to the point, this attacking switch and emphasis in hindsight didn’t exactly provide the success we expected, there was more to it than just changing players, the mentality of it all and external factors with money and other clubs also shifted the tide but Arsenal inevitably began to show a weakness over the years – the defensive core and defensive duties in the game. To go forward we should now look to strengthen this area of the field, its logical really. Our balance has swung too far towards the attacking end of the scales and a re-balancing is necessary. Take Manchester City for example, Guardiola identified last season that his defence needed improving, going forward City were brilliant, but their weaknesses at the back cost them the chance to compete. Ederson, Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy, Danilo and this transfer window Aymeric Laporte were all brought in to shore up City, Whilst provide extra pace and width in the full back areas to stretch and improve wide support for their attacking play. Ederson has been more consistent in goal to bravo and Otamendi and Stones have been stronger as a result, Laporte coming in will provide more defensive strength and as well as play from the back. 15 points clear in January has meant many title rivals have already conceded defeat this season and inevitably City are going to win the league this season. Converting these draws and defeats into results has been down to a defensive improvement. Liverpool again great attack, leaky at the back and that is why they are not competing this season. Chelsea last year were defensively solid and that’s what won them the title. If Arsenal are to win the league they need to put more energy into shoring the defence up. Going forward is just not a problem we will score goals, always have, always will.
The question is will Wenger identify this? The answer for me is probably not. Wenger has a stubbornness about him to do things his way and feels Arsenal are strong enough defensively – even though Nacho Monreal has been up until late playing as a centre half or Oxlade-Chamberlain was playing right wing back up until his departure. I personally feel the players are not as respondent to Arsene as they once were and a new manager would freshen things up and be able to address this rebalance. We have players at the club who can do this – in my opinion that is. Laurent Koscielny for me is one of the better centre halves in the league, Mustafi is improving and you won’t see much better value for a full back in Hector Bellerin. I do feel we need some more defence minded players in and around the back. In today’s nature of the game I do not see many around who would be our perfect candidate to come in at the moment. These players are capable, it’s just whether the emphasis is put on them. And this is where in midfield it is not being addressed.
Granit Xhaka upon arrival I was excited by, but I feel he has much work to do to become a world class complete midfielder. A great passing range has got to be his big attribute, he can operate deeper but defensively he is so poor, last season there was many a mistimed tackle and I feel he struggles reading the speed of the game. Too many times he loses his marker when the ball goes wide and often he is not interested in tracking back to get organised. Too many times I have seen him on looking a tap in from the man he has been marking. Wenger has also tried a few times using Elneny either in a back three or in front of the back four and for me it’s the same outcome, good with the ball, not natural at recovering possession for the team and breaking the opposition down. Responsibility cannot lie with individuals though, not when defending, it’s a team effort – at the end of the day your team is the one who suffers when you concede, it is not up to one player in the middle to provide support to the back, everyone has a defensive role when the opposition has the ball and more emphasis to win it back is needed at Arsenal, not what they are going to do with it. I feel we missed a big chance with N’Golo Kante going to Chelsea, he in recent times has reiterated the importance of having a destructive player in the team, Sir Alex Ferguson lauding Kante as the most valuable player in Leicester’s title winning campaign in 2015/16.
You feel looking in from the outside that defending for many clubs at the training ground now lies in the transition phases of the game, I feel many teams are looking to spring the counter and as a result are keeping more players higher in position rather than behind the ball. This is fine as it will create many chances to score because in theory there will be space in behind the ball if it is won but you are putting more pressure if the ball is lost on the defensive areas of the team. At the same time you cannot sit back or you’re inviting the opposition on and limiting your chances to retain the ball and attack. You can see why balance is hard to be strung. Nonetheless it is now really shunned upon to get bodies behind the ball, it’s seen as negative – Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce, Claud Puel and at times Jose Mourinho brands of football are lambasted by spectators. It does though produce results, there is a reason teams put ten bodies behind the ball when playing the bigger and more talented attacking teams in the league.
In my opinion overall, we need to seek a balance going forward, we need to address our defensive frailties and put a fresh emphasis of the defensive phases of the game. I feel our next manager should have these qualities as I feel Wenger will not focus on this problem we currently have. Until Wenger goes I don’t see us improving in this area and as a result we will not win the bigger trophies that Arsenal are craving to become one of the giants in the game. Everything else for the club is set – we are financially healthy, we have European football, albeit not the European football we want to be in at the moment, we have an attractive attack, we are London based (maybe irrelevant to many but remember players, families and staff do look at locations to live) and have a reasonably strong history as a big team in England and Europe. In an ideal world we would have had Pep Guardiola in the season Manchester City signed him, it would have been the perfect team for him to take on with little to do change the mentality of the player to get them playing his way compared to other clubs. I don’t want to see someone inexperienced coming in next, you worry that Wenger will have too much influence on who succeeds him and more worryingly that he may have a say in what the new manager does. Some have mentioned Eddie Howe or a former player like Mikel Arteta or Thierry Henry, but I feel that they would not be shown the full backing by the fans and maybe for the former players would dampen their credit with the Arsenal faithful’s memories.
The way the managerial market goes you are never sure if you can get your perfect manager. In an ideal world today I would like to see Diego Simeone succeed Wenger, you only have to look at how strong and solid he has made Atletico Madrid, they have beaten the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona in the 2013-14 season with Atletico also reaching the final of the Champions league in that season as well. Simeone also won the Europa league in 2012 with Atletico – that domestic and European pedigree he has would be very sought after by Arsenal. I feel his style of play shows balance, and with our attacking players it would be a perfect storm. Antonio Conte? If he was to leave Chelsea this season I wouldn’t be unhappy with Conte. Pottechino? Probably not considering the circumstances! Finding a successor will be no easy task for the future but for Arsenal fans it’s knowing we will be competing for the title again and playing and hopefully challenging in the champions league in the future, however it comes and whoever delivers it, all we need is a little more balance on the field of play.
You can follow Adam on twitter, where he can be found lamenting Arsenal’s play each and every week! @adamalecwright