During this second half of Arsene Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal, pundits, journo’s and alike have all posed the same few questions; do Arsenal have steel, do they have desire, are they up for it? We saw during the week that these questions are still front and centre as we watched our best available XI get a lesson from Swansea.
The days of Seaman, Adams, Keown, Dixon, Vieira and Petit are long over but what they stood for still applies…and in fact severely lacks throughout Arsenal teams of recent years. Steel, grit, mental strength, desire, motivation and effort are synonymous with The Invincibles and other trophy winning squads before them. As recent years have shown, Stoke away on a wet and miserable mid-week night, Swansea away in the same conditions, and the likes of Southampton and Bournemouth away have all been banana skins and hurdles that we could not overcome.
The addition of Petr Cech to support the long-serving Koscielny should have strengthened the team’s spine but really, this has had little success in terms of organisation. Same with Mustafi, the squad’s talent levels have increased but fragility at set pieces and defending high/long balls away from home in miserable conditions has barely improved since the days of Fabianski and Szczęsny. Our approach to these games has got to change, whether that be during pre-game preparation on the coach or hotels, during team talks and team announcements or during warm-ups – the team and management need to fundamentally organise themselves with grit and desire first and foremost. Wenger needs to motivate his players more for these games, get them ‘up for it’. So what can be done?
Teams that sit off Arsenal, usually lesser teams, who are incredibly organised and ultimately packed with grit, determination and who all seem ‘up for it’ are often the most dangerous. Picture the scenario – we pass sideways and backwards, controlling the game for much of the first half but the opposition then have a chance or two and are ahead first. We are then are on the back foot come the second half and begin to take risks just to equalise, opening our defence and exposing ourselves in the process. It’s the same story, season after season…we lack the grit to fight through these games, to dig out results. Yes, there has been the odd great occasion, Burnley in the 90th minute twice, that late Welbeck header against Leicester but overall these types of games remain a hurdle for Wenger and his men. Does he need to change the shape or style of his XI from a Man City game to a Bournemouth game for example? Wenger’s rigidity and lack of change over the last ten or eleven years has cost us, no doubt, but the players should take responsibility as well. As individuals, the players never seem to learn from last time, and it’s always the same issues that trouble us.
Having now secured Ozil, and likely to secure Wilshere, this combination is the key to overcoming our wet and miserable away day blues. Ozil is the one to unlock a well-organised opposition defence, whilst Wilshere will bring the grit and fight to our midfield. It was obvious that the team missed Jack against Swansea as our midfield was more keen to pass and play than they were to get stuck in and make tackles. Recruitment is also crucial going forward, Wenger has always looked to sign a technical expert, a footballing defender – it is now time we add a traditional defender to the mix. A healthy squad needs different types of players for different types of opponents in order to succeed and win trophies. Our centre backs especially, are all footballing defenders so their first instinct is to pass and play. However, this is often costly and a more traditional English-type of centre back would just clear the ball. No matter what, that hunger and desire to keep a clean sheet would never be risked for a pointless sideways pass across goal, something we as fans regularly see.
Understanding is also key. Sam Clucas slipped through our four-man defence Tuesday night as our fullbacks were positioned as if it were three at the back, thinking a third CB was stationed to help. This laziness led Koscielny to be exposed on his right with a huge gap between Bellerin at right back and Laurent himself. Learning from mistakes, adaptability, determination, fight for a clean sheet, no risks and no nonsense should backbone our approach to provide a solid platform for free flowing forward-thinking attacking football. Our front line has no doubt improved with the expulsion of Alexis and the additions of Mhki and Auba but they need a solid base behind them. A true CDM in the mould Makelele or Kante is still required in my opinion. Every successful modern-day team who wins league titles has one; Man City (Fernandinho), Chelsea (Kante/Matic), Barcelona (Busquets), Juventus (Khedira) and Monaco (Fabinho) are just some examples from recent memory. No matter whether it is four or three in defence, a true CDM – who’s instinctive game is to suss out danger – will be always be positioned in front of the back line. That first line of protection and steel is something our midfield unit currently lacks and Coquelin was the only obvious candidate but he has recently moved on it falls to Wilshere and Xhaka or Ramsey to limit their playmaking styles to try to fill this void. Until the club addresses the issue, we will continue to have problems on those cold and wet winter away days.