Editor’s Note: Gerry, in his inimitable way, ponders the question posed by this break for International matches. Looking back–but also forward–he asks: Why can’t Arsenal get the job done in all competitions and against all opponents?
Well, I do not think the answer is that difficult to find. Particularly if you follow the ‘Perfect Storm’ model, whereby several different ingredients combine to create something much more threatening–something that would otherwise be unthinkable.
Here are what I consider to be the ‘ingredients’ that have led to this situation Arsenal have had–seemingly from the opening game of the season–and which sadly will continue, I predict, until more of these ingredients change.
We begin by going back to the successful end of season run which included retaining the FA Cup and capturing 3rd spot in the Premier League, our highest position for several seasons. We let several players leave during the summer, but basically kept our core squad. However, despite an impressive pre-season, the first hint of problems were on the very near horizon.
1: Two key injuries which should have been cleared up in the summer break have turned into long term problems. Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck will be out of contention for the next 4 months. Adequate cover was available or so it seemed. But, as you read on, you will find how these injuries added to the overall problem.
2: Next came the unavailability of players who would have been key signings in the transfer window. I say ‘unavailability’ when it should read more as ‘unavailable to Arsenal.’ Arsenal–whether through policy, timing, or being attractive enough to sway players to want to come–signed no outfield players. That is how the window ended and it became another ingredient that will continue haunt our progress in games to come.
3: Finally, the last thing fate threw at us from the summer was Alexis Sanchez’ progress through the Copa America tournament. Few people in Europe can appreciate just how big an event that was for a single player, let alone the team or the country as a whole. To put it in perspective, think of a Europe wide tournament where one of the smaller footballing nations, like Switzerland or Ukraine, got to the final and won…then add in a highly talented, driven individual, one who has risen to the highest level in his profession, playing a major part in all the preceding rounds, stepping up to take a vital penalty and scoring it. That player was, of course, ‘our’ Alexis Sanchez.
Credit Arsene Wenger for knowing how difficult it would be for the player to come down from such an emotional high having seen it the previous year with our German players winning the World Cup. So, he gave Alexis extra time off. Unfortunately, that was negated by the pressure from the player himself who ended up playing in early games this season without proper preparation. Alas, his early form was a shadow of the player we knew.
The good news is–he’s back!
It took a game on the bench to click the switch in his head which unlocked that desire again. I am sure just watching, and seeing how hard his team mates were trying without him, triggered something in his emotions, which, in turn, helped him recapture that sharpness.
This was the first ingredient to change. But others still remain.
4: Apart from those mentioned above, there has been the long running struggle to get the best out of the players we have. In midfield, accommodating Ramsey (along with Cazorla and Ozil) has been an issue but one which has been partially solved by giving him a ‘free role’ from the right. In effect this means he only visits that wing when there is space and opportunity. At times this can be very effective, but at others it simply adds a layer to the inconsistency.
5: Loans. Due to factors 1 and 2 above, we have limited choice among strikers and we particularly miss Welbeck. It is not for us to say the manager was wrong to send Chuba Akpom (in particular) out on a season-long loan as at the time Welbeck was hoping for an early return. I happen to agree with the manager that this season was probably a season too early for Chuba to take on the responsibility in ‘must win’ games. I’m slightly less inclined to agree with Isaac Hayden departing to the same club (Hull City) as I feel he is a player more ready to help us, but both needed regular game time.
6: Goals. Our goal scoring really suffered with the Alexis hangover, Olivier Giroud having a near meltdown of confidence and Theo Walcott on a steep learning curve as our best option at striker. All of which was only emphasised by the stats which said we were on a 6% conversion rate of opportunities, mostly provided by our midfield pair, Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla.
Given that Walcott is now looking more like a central striker–providing he can do what he did against Manchester United on a regular basis, despite not scoring himself–and that Alexis has netted 6 goals in the last three games, one could be forgiven for thinking the worst is over.
7: Alas, all oppositions are not the same. We are somewhat predictable in how we line up. Whether it is Giroud or Walcott up front, teams set themselves up to cut off the supply lines once we cross the half way line. Space is denied to Walcott, Alexis finds a posse surrounding him, and the center spaces, invariably, are well manned too.
Throw in the lack of goals from Ramsey–at the moment–and the fact he does not supply width when he moves in field, that job being left to Hector Bellerin. That in itself is not a problem until a side like Swansea, who have Jefferson Montero (he of blistering pace), counter in an instant, or West Ham United, with Dimitri Payet, put our defence under all sorts of pressure.
This brings me to the final ingredient of our ‘perfect storm’ development: The defence.
8: We have made changes enforced by the illness to Mertesacker, and injuries to both Coquelin and Koscielny, which has had a knock on effect in midfield. Even before the last few games we have made changes–some in the name of rotation–which did not work out too well, no matter who was in goal. Rotation is important long term, so there’s no point in thinking we can send out the same 14 players to do their stuff when games come thick and fast. The same is true over the next 6 weeks because the squad will be crippled by the time the Christmas mayhem will occur. That, may I remind you all, is where we often have a downturn, before we start off on a run in the New Year, both in the FA Cup and league which gives us a decent finish.
So this is why, in my opinion, we have had the roller-coaster season so far.
Our talisman, Alexis Sanchez, is back to scoring and driving the team forward. We are beginning to see the potential of Walcott, ‘the striker,’ being fulfilled. We have even got the huge confidence boost from not just winning against a top 3 contender but absolutely obliterating them in just 20 minutes, not to mention the strong pairing of Mertesacker and Gabriel as cover for the absent Koscielny.
Despite all of these major pluses, we still have some familiar weaknesses:
a: The biggest one is maintaining the fitness of Coquelin.
b: We have to find a sustainable balance to be able to rotate in a way that keeps more players fit and sharp without destroying our continuity.
c: We need a Plan B for when games are not fitting the criteria for our attack. This is nothing new.
d: Finally, we have to find formations which can get the best out of the players we have available and which also keeps the fine line between over-commitment going forward and our defensive frailties at the back.
The victory over Manchester United will give every side in the land good reason to fear us. As long as we remain committed to the basics and don’t get so over-confident that we believe just turning up gives us a victory (as has happened to some extent in the past) I think we can have a decent run in the league this side of Christmas.
I’m not sure our victory will have done us any favours regarding Bayern Munich, though. They will certainly not take us lightly and the blistering form they have been in–playing at such a high level–will be a real test of our strengths and weaknesses.
So, I will leave it up to you as to how much you put our inconsistency down to poor management, poor tactics or just individual player errors.
Instead, I have set out the background details with which Arsene Wenger has had to deal, without necessarily subscribing any blame. When such factors combine there is very little a manager can do about it…without hindsight, of course.
So, as we are still a ‘hostage of fortune’ regarding injuries, please consider (in your deliberations) how you would handle worst case scenarios prior to the return of Koscielny, Welbeck and Wilshere. In my opinion, in order of severity, injuries to Coquelin, Alexis, Walcott, Mertersacker, Gabriel, Ozil, Giroud and Cech are our major worry.
But what say you, fine fellow Gooners? Are we past the ‘perfect storm,’ or is the ManU win (and this break for International matches) just the eye of the hurricane?