So, it seems like Arsenal have their swagger back. Well…sort of.
Central to the recent turn of events was Alexis Sanchez’s departure to Manchester United in January, welcomed by many as a real weight off aching shoulders, with results against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup and the 4-0 demolition job against Crystal Palace in the Premier League going some way into reflecting a similar posture throughout the squad.
Here’s the complicated, yet equally predictable bit – the Gunners’ two-sided self then went on to put on a dismal defensive display away to Swansea City, losing 3-1 and worsening a streak of away games unlike any other under Arsène Wenger.
However, in the space of four days, the North Londoners were able to light up their season with the reinvigorating capture of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, adding to Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s arrival, before the news of Mesut Özil’s contract extension boosted the morale to no end.
Better still, Arsenal were able to couple a thrilling few days with the 5-1 dissection of Sam Allardyce’s rigid Everton side, in an inspiring evening at the Emirates. As poor as the once-cocky Toffees boss may have believed his team to be on the day, the sight of Özil, Alex Iwobi and Mkhitaryan – all in heavy rotation – popping the ball off with such fluidity was a joy to behold.
Even I, as a fan who at times hasn’t felt as invested as one would like, couldn’t contain myself from looking like a giggling mess in the visual presence of Aubameyang’s dink into the far-post, spearheading Arsenal into a 4-0 lead before half-time.
On first viewing, with the goals taken away by Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott, the Gunners’ latest additions certainly look likely to hand a healthy portion back, unlocking the potential to entertain in a manner much closer to home. But, staying true to familiarity, the inability to extend the club’s January assault on options for our defensive sector has been leveled as a serious cause for concern. Could it continue to be Arsenal’s undoing?
The frailties are there for all to see, littered across and beyond Wenger’s maligned backline. Laurent Koscielny, at the increasingly alarming age of 32, has a well-documented physical limitation, meanwhile Shkodran Mustafi has long looked totally devoid of the confidence and reliability we’ve come to expect from the ball-playing defender. That state was so much so that the defender was even rumoured to be seriously considering a swift exit back in the summer, before eventually being held by the club.
Rob Holding has been somewhat stable, but raw, whereas Calum Chambers’ light has been waning for quite some time and Per Mertesacker, in accordance with many, has probably extended his career a year longer than Arsenal should’ve been prepared to settle for.
Sead Kolasinac joins the problem, falling out of favour with Wenger to often give way for Ainsley Maitland-Niles at left-wing back, who’s looked as impressive as he has been awkward in an unfamiliar role.
Be it a back four or five, Arsenal’s shape is also sandwiched with key low-notes in Petr Čech and Granit Xhaka. One has taken to the slope of deterioration, meanwhile the latter shows grave signs of struggling to untie himself from the pressures of top-tier Premier League football, subsequently handing his confidence and creative progressiveness a beating.
And just like that, the North Londoners’ issues become widespread and in serious need of being rectified.
You only need to go as far as the boss’ words last week to know what’s currently found at the back isn’t ideal. Talk centered around West Bromwich Albion’s Jonny Evans, holding a considerably higher asking price than what may actually turn out to be necessary a few more months down the line, and an apparent interest in David Luiz, locked down at cross-city rivals Chelsea. All quick-fixes.
Wenger seemed keen to add to his backline, but adequate names came few and far between – commonplace in the January transfer window. This may well render the focus on defensive reinforcements, or lack thereof, as useless.
It’s with the current squad that Arsenal must set out to achieve its current objectives, whether that’s a top four finish, Europa League glory, and/or decorative success in the Carabao Cup final. Possible? Yes, because it’s important to remember that the aforementioned players under scrutiny aren’t actually bad players.
Koscielny, when fit, is up there with the very best in Europe. Under his influence, and Mustafi deserves a great amount of credit for this, the Frenchman and the German formed a formidable partnership at the beginning of the 2016/17 season that took the latter 22 league games before tasting defeat. Did it all happen by chance?
There was life in Xhaka before Arsenal – an eye-catching stint at Borussia Mönchengladbach that saw the Switzerland international garner an illustrious list of followers across European football. Among his weaknesses, confidence, a chronic issue throughout the evolution of others, seems to be the key factor weighing his qualities down.
Others might well point towards Wenger’s choice of structure being a hindrance when playing out from the back, as well as the key component that makes Arsenal’s defensive transition look far more reactive, rather than proactive. A dated problem, but the club’s state of mind certainly hasn’t been too far behind, this season.
With the arrival of Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan, strangely enough, the Gunners might well be able to assure themselves defensively and push on from the disappointments of the first-half of the season, following the old mantra that attack is the best form of defence.
Wenger appears keen to adhere to that assessment, telling the Arsenal website earlier this week that “when you say we’ve conceded too many goals, I think we don’t score enough.
“That’s our basic problem,” Wenger said. “That’s our DNA. We are an attacking team. The danger is when you are an attacking team that doesn’t score, you create your own problems.”
As mentioned at the start of this piece, some of the football displayed last Saturday was particularly palatable. It was all very ‘Arsenal’. The good kind of ‘Arsenal. And, yes, you can pick issues with the mistakes made by Everton, but can’t we all with just about any goal that’s conceded? We’re certainly never short of culpable players.
The chaos caused by three fluid playmakers, working in tandem with Aubameyang’s movement, stripped the Toffees down to their bare bones in the first half and the prospect is there for this team to do as such with greater regularity.
It’s a methodology that subscribes far more to the retention of possession, as opposed to the highlighted throwaway/high risk, high reward nature of a Sanchez-led attack, which, in theory, should put the defensive sector under less strain.
In a throwback to the days of Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Tomas Rosicky, among others, should Arsenal pull it off in the final third, the results and well-being of the team, particularly those under-fire, is sure to follow. That certainly seems to be the lasting hope, with only the football ahead of us able to establish whether it’s truly the answer to the Gunners’ faulty season.
By Patrick Ribeiro