It seemed for so long that Arsene Wenger just didn’t seem to know what was wrong with his Arsenal team. For the past six seasons, it was clearly obvious to fans and viewers that Arsenal had no Plan B to their attacking game; They lacked experience, bite in midfield, a defensive rock at the back and no squad depth. Was it the fans that were blinded to the talent that only Wenger could see? Or was it Wenger having too much pride to admit he was wrong?
Come 2011, a dramatic fall from grace; from fighting on four fronts, the Gunners fell hard and off the rails. Losing the League Cup to Birmingham, getting knocked out of Europe by Spanish nemesis Barcelona, likewise by Manchester United in the FA Cup and winning only 2 games in the last 10 Premier League games. Summer arrived, so did the sagas: Fabregas to Barcelona, Nasri to Manchester City. Fans feared the worst as they might lose their two best players. Wenger however, didn’t. He went about his business, saying that the duo were committed to the club. Was he so blind to see that Fabregas wanted to return to his home club and Nasri wanted to play for a winning team?
They left and then came the last day transfer deals: Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, Andre Santos and Park Chu-Young came in. Everyone criticized Wenger, saying that he hadn’t replaced Fabregas and Nasri with players of the same quality. Yet, he did something that we didn’t expect: he learned his lessons from the previous seasons and now it’s paying dividends.
Arsenal’s recent run of form, 9 wins from 11 games, has coincided with Wenger’s recent change in tactics, playing style and obviously the introduction of the new recruits. In term of tactics and style, Wenger has stuck to his default 4-3-3: the target man, supported by strikers/wingers on both sides that come in to support; three in middle, with two creators and one anchor man and finally the back four; one sweeper, one ball-playing centre back and supporting full backs who get forward. So what’s the difference? Simply, when Arsenal had Fabregas and Nasri, they were a possession based team, but with the lost of these two players, Arsenal has gone for a more direct style of play. With wingers Theo Walcott, Gervinho and Arshavin having immense speed, Arsenal have defended deeper than usual, and when they have the ball, they launch counter attacks. As reported in ZonalMarking.com this style of play was most evitable in Chelsea game, in which they won 5-3.
Wenger has recently admitted that he has sacrificed his team’s attacking gung-ho style in the search for results. Has Wenger really learned from the past? “I would say we are a bit more controlled and less cavalier,” Wenger said on Arsenal’s official website. “We are less adventurous when the job is done, I must say. Overall, I would say it is a more mature attitude. We were more functional, we did the job properly, with quality and with seriousness.” It seems Wenger has realised that Arsenal needed a bit more substance to their style and winning is key.
The change in style and tactics is due to new recruits and they have stood out, but it’s not just in what they have done but the type of player they are and the experience they offer. Per Mertesacker is a German international, named the “the defence pole”. Standing at 6 ft 6, he is imposing and provides height in the backline, something Wenger has failed to address over the years. More importantly, while not a vocal leader at the back, Wenger has said: ”He is a good organiser as well, he understands the game, he is an intelligent player”.
The signing of Arteta, while not a like for like replacement for Fabregas, offers something different to his fellow Spaniard. Fabregas played behind the attacking three, while Arteta plays a deeper in the midfield and whose primary task is to quickly get the ball to Walcott, Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey, who has taken the creator role of Fabregas. Arteta’s arrival has led to Arsenal’s more direct style of play and also lightens the load of the creative task of Ramsey and when he returns, Jack Wilshere. Wenger seems to have understood that Arsenal has needed an experienced individual in the centre of midfield, and the Arteta signing proved that.
New signings Gervinho and Park Chu-Young add other attacking options for the Gunners. Santos replaces the departed Gael Clichy and even though, his attacking abilities are noticeable, he does have to improve his defending, but he has been given the trust of Wenger. Even though he has rarely featured this season, on loan from Chelsea, Yossi Benayoun still has a part to play for the Gunners; his guile and creative can help this season. “His experience can make a big difference at some stage,” Wenger has said.
Still, Wenger has stuck by his principles by signing young promising players such as Carl Jenkinson, Ryo Miyaichi, Costa Rican Joel Campbell and English starlet Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Jenkinson has been given a decent run in the team, due to Sagna’s injury and while it has taken him time, he has settled into the role. While Oxlade-Chamberlain has shown glimpses of great potential, even scoring on his Champions League debut, he is one to look out for.
Wenger has finally learned from his past mistakes and Arsenal are on the rise. They have a long way to go: they are still battling to get into the top four, not least challenging for the Premier League title. They are still in the League Cup (where they face off against Manchester City), need one more point to progress to the next round of the Champions League and the FA Cup has yet to start.
The change in Wenger’s methods has helped Arsenal dramatically and hopefully there may well be a chance for them to break their trophy drought.