After the shellacking that Arsenal received at Anfield on Sunday afternoon, it would take a brave man to talk about winning the league. The only Arsenal player to have turned up at Merseyside – Petr Cech is a brave man. In a post-match interview, he said, “I don’t think it can get any worse than this. I believe we have a team who can respond to a challenging moment. With two defeats, you can still win the league. If I didn’t believe we could respond I would retire and not play football anymore. We have shown our ability in many games.”
Apparently, this sense of denial runs through the club management and some players and they might see this Sunday’s defeat as a routine loss to a fellow top-six side. After all, Monday was the anniversary of another horrible game from the years gone – an 8-2 away loss to Manchester United. Thus, while angry Arsenal fans are ranting on Arsenal Fan TV and former greats are calling for seismic changes, Arsene Wenger or the club shareholders do not seem to be in a hurry to change course. This despite the transfer deadline being a mere two days away.
That is unfortunate, as such denial of truth ensures that the Gunners will not be title contenders anytime soon. In fact, if they do not change course, the close competition between the top six in the Premier League can push them down the league, taking away their holy grail – the 4th place – from them for a longer term than what Wenger would be prepared to bargain for. Just ask Liverpool about their experience from 2009-10 to 2013-14 and the two seasons before the last.
What Arsenal need is a balanced perspective off the field – where all facts are put forward and hard decisions made. On the field, they need a balanced team. The squad that has started this campaign is already very imbalanced and imminent exits can make it even more so. Let us look at areas in the team that need more personnel or tactical shifts to bring in the balance.
In the first three Premier League games, Wenger has started with three different back-three combinations. Injuries and suspensions have played their part in this. But at one point, in the first game against Leicester, Arsenal were playing three full-backs in their back-three. When you are averse to spending the ludicrous transfer amounts, then you have to adjust the tactics to the personnel available to you. Any decent Football Manager player would know this. But, Wenger has started by enforcing a tactic, for which he does not have the personnel.
Speed and acceleration are prerequisites for three-man defences, especially in the Premier League. He could also have strengthened Arsenal’s defence but other than Kolasinac, he has not brought in anyone.
The midfield starters in the first three games were relatively more consistent, other than Elneny starting the first game against the Foxes. However, Arsenal’s midfield seems to be frail. The Gunners can keep and rotate the ball very well but when they need to pluck the ball away from opponents’ feet and stop their attacks, they come up short.
Arsenal need someone to play a holding midfield role but none of the current players can do it effectively. Ramsey is better going forward and Xhaka cannot play the role without suspensions. Time is running out but if Wenger can add a good ball-winning, tackling midfielder, he can add some balance to Arsenal’s midfield.
In attack, it is more a question of tactics for the personnel on the field and the players’ will to play for the Gunners. As Lacazette showed in the first game, he has a keen eye for a goal and he can be a menace for opposition defences.
Why then would Wenger start with Welbeck against Liverpool, whose defence does not need a reason to get confused? Why should Sanchez have started following his return from a serious injury? On paper, Arsenal have a fairly formidable attack, but Wenger has to deploy the attack in a way that suits his system. Right now, his attacking instructions seem to be – keep the ball, rotate it around the field and one of the attackers will conjure up a goal. With that kind of talent, it might even happen once or twice but it cannot be termed as a sustainable strategy.
It would have been best if Arsene Wenger had not renewed his contract in May. But, now that he has, he needs to focus on tailoring the tactics to the players he intends to field. Arsenal are best when they play balanced football; not to too attacking and not too defensive at the same time.
If Wenger is able to restore Arsenal’s balance, they might still be a valid top-four contender, but should the Frenchman fail to do so; then Arsenal will have to spend another season playing Europa League football.