Arsenal used to try and emulate Barcelona, but now they’re closer to Real Madrid. They used to be a side of clever, tricky players. Now the London club trots out a much more physically imposing lineup, represented in the early part of the season by the magnificent Abou Diaby.
Wenger wanted to win games through possession. Now his side dominate teams that want to win games through possession. A recurring theme of Arsenal’s season has been clinical destruction of opponents that try and play aggressively against them. Liverpool, Southampton, Montpellier — they were all dispatched by a side that countered swiftly and decisively.
I’ve written before about Arsenal’s transition to a more direct style, encapsulated by Arsene Wenger’s signing of Lukas Podolski and Gervinho to play in positions once manned by the likes of Samir Nasri. Almost all new Arsenal signings have pace to burn and a hunger to shoot (if not always the required accuracy). Santi Cazorla is the conductor that makes it all possible. Often staying high up the pitch, in a role that Mesut Ozil plays flawlessly for Real Madrid, the Spanish playmaker starts and finishes break ingeniously.
Personally, I like this new Arsenal. It’s slick and has impressive verticality, all while retaining Wenger’s philosophy of keeping the football on the ground. Of course the question to ask is… has the team done better? Is the new style curing the deficiencies the old style couldn’t?
The answer is no. Arsenal’s problem this year is the same as in years past. When sides pack their own half and play on the counter themselves, there’s very little ingenuity to break them down. Sunderland and Stoke both drew, Shalke and Norwich won. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar referenced the tactic in his post-match interview. The Dutchman said “we tried to keep the defense and the midfield close together, to deny them space to operate between the lines.” Hold a deep block, keep the side compact to ensure Cazorla has no joy, and suddenly Arsenal have to do all the running. The problem in fact may have exacerbated as more and more creative players get sold or frozen out each year.
It’s not as if these games are rare failings in the style of Barcelona either. Even West Ham looked good for a point or three against the Gunners and could have had it if Kevin Nolan had converted some very good chances.
Against sides that sit deep is when Arsenal truly miss Robin Van Persie. He turned into more of a poacher in his last year at the club and always offered a focal point to run attacks through. Even in seasons before that, he was a constant source of ingenuity, pulling wide, dropping deep, and testing the opposition with accurate long range shooting.
Of course the Netherlands star isn’t in London anymore, and Arsenal need an alternate route to victory. The Guardian has made note of Wenger playing Gervinho as the “falsest of false nines” and as hilarious as that may sound, it’s a decent start. Gervinho offers pace and trickery in a similar (though less good) way as Lionel Messi, dropping deep and taking defenders with him, then slipping a through ball to onrushing attackers. Another way Wenger has tried dealing with the situation is to use Olivier Giroud as a penalty-box presence. This plan seems like a good way to deal with the problem, offering a poacher in the box that Arsenal can run their attacks through similar to Van Persie. However, the Frenchman’s inaccurate finishing means this strategy hasn’t reaped many dividends yet.
In the long run, Arsenal should be fine. The squad is full of quality and appears deeper than seasons before. As Cazorla plays more with his teammates it will be harder to mark him out of the game as Oscar did in the London derby. In fact, stretching the pitch on the counter may even help them against other top sides that want to come at them. In the short-term however, Arsene Wenger needs to find a way to consistently beat the teams that Arsenal ‘should beat’.