The result at Valley Parade on Tuesday night may have come as a shock to many, but Arsenal`s directionless performance should not have. Arsene Wenger`s demand for consistency after last Saturday`s rather fortuitous win at home to a West Brom side experiencing something of a blip in form after a flying start to the season was well-intentioned and suitable for the media – one must always remember that Wenger intends not to speak his mind but to give pundits as little as possible to sink their vulture-like beaks into – but ultimately misplaced. Against the Baggies Arsenal managed a mere 7 shots on target, 2 of which were spot-kicks, and had caprice to thank for the points. Prior to the match at Valley Parade Arsenal had hit the target just 68 times in their 11 games since returning from the international break to face Norwich at Carrow Road on October the 20th (excluding the anomalous Reading tie and games vs 10 men) – a meagre 6.2 shots on target per match – and it`s hard to remember us having many clear chances in this time period at all. At Bradford Arsenal were, in this regard, indeed consistent to their previous performance, mustering only 12 shots on target in the 120 minutes, but this time received no such charity. By comparison, Everton – a side composed largely of talented, but by no means extraordinary, players who clearly relish their roles in the team – average 9.4 shots on target in their last 10 games. Manchester United average only 7.3 shots in their last 10, but after last season Arsenal fans know very well that with the kind of firepower they possess, including a certain notable Dutchman in particular, this is sufficient for them to get goals.
So, given the creative talent at our disposal, why are we not carving out more goal-scoring opportunities and how could the problem be rectified? Whatever you think of the man, Arsene Wenger and his coaching staff have a colossal amount of knowledge and experience in football, so if they aren`t getting the team to click I`m not going to pretend that I have a definitive answer. However, it does seem to me that there are certain contradictions and imbalances in the team`s attacking philosophy that are rather blatant to see from the stands or on the TV.
Arteta and Wilshere have never made a habit of making runs into the box – although the latter may yet add this to his game in the future- and the drastically unconfident Ramsey has been largely consigned to an unfamiliar position on the wing. This gives Cazorla and his midfield partners very few bodies to play off in the box and the lack of movement through the centre of the pitch makes diagonal runs from the flank into the area more conspicuous and easier to pick up. Hence, Podolski has tended to stay wide, where he looks very uncomfortable, and has in many games been anonymous. In the same position, Gervinho is more ready to take possession and head to the byline, but once more the lack of options in the middle make it very hard for him to pick out a final ball. His technique and awareness is certainly questionable, but with van Persie`s exceptionally sharp movement to pick out last season he claimed numerous assists before heading to the African Cup of Nations after putting in outstanding performances against Stoke, Chelsea and Wigan. Despite being the most frustrating player I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch, he can definitely make a positive contribution with the right support. His run and cut-back for Rosicky`s goal in Athens last week was evidence of this.
It is widely agreed that, in terms of individual talent, Arsenal are strongest in midfield. With Santi Cazorla already seen as something of a talisman and our main creative spark, our players regularly try to engineer the ball towards him when gaps in the opposition`s defence aren`t apparent. In order to stretch play and provide him with space, our wide forwards tend to station themselves within 5-10 yards of the touchline when we`re in possession. Until Abou Diaby, whose powerful bursts from midfield into the penalty area (with and without the ball) were a notable feature of the games in which he featured, came off injured in the early stages of the Chelsea match in September – our first defeat of the season – this was fairly effective. The forward presence of Diaby and Giroud pushed midfielders back towards their own penalty area and made space for Cazorla to drift, often exchanging passes with Podolski before taking up a position on the left, allowing Podolski to make himself available closer to goal – a feature reminiscent of his displays in the 2010 World Cup when Germany`s flexible but organized system saw Özil drift wide and allow Podolski to get himself into goal-scoring positions. The seemingly telepathic relationship between Cazorla and Podolski was touted amongst many as having the potential to lead Arsenal`s Premier League challenge. Without Diaby`s part in this triangle, however, Podolski`s on-field relationship with Cazorla has grown distant.
Thus, if the ball isn`t finding Giroud it`s not finding anyone. The ball comes back out and, with defenders willingly pushing the play out wide, the pattern repeats until it breaks down – hence the recent stereotypical image of Arsenal being benignly camped outside the opposition`s penalty area. Encouraging the likes of Cazorla to more frequently make runs behind Giroud in order to benefit from a knock-down or defensive uncertainty (a favoured tactic of teams playing against us) would certainly be an improvement, although it would be hugely demanding of both the skill of Giroud and good fortune to rely on this leading to many goals. When the wide players do make runs to the byline Giroud`s movement is intelligent – not dissimilar to what RvP was doing last season – but simply not as sharp as his Dutch predecessor, and his lack of acceleration means he has been less effective when making runs in front of defenders from their blind side. Furthermore, his close control, while far from disastrous, is not of the extremely high calibre necessary for a lone striker to consistently knit play together in the penalty area and make team-mates confident that their runs into the penalty area will be rewarded.
Last season, RvP`s phenomenal movement off the ball in and around the box gave the likes of Walcott, Gervinho and Chamberlain direction. His short early runs towards the posts dragged defenders with him and left space behind him for a runner from wide (Walcott`s run in the build-up for Chamberlain`s 2nd goal vs Blackburn springs to mind) or central midfield (e.g. Arteta`s goal vs West Brom) to burst into. Alternatively, he would often start such a run before checking it early – selling the defender towards his near post and giving himself a couple of yards of space to allow the low cross from wide – a manoeuvre that was pivotal for many of Walcott and Gervinho`s assists last season (see his first goal of the season vs Udinese for an example). His speed of thought ensured that once the byline was reached there were almost bound to be options for the winger.
Unfortunately, Giroud`s qualities don`t lend themselves to this role. Clearly, his aerial prowess is his most potent weapon, and so team-mates prefer to play the ball in with a higher trajectory and from a deeper position so that Giroud can make forward runs onto the ball rather than having to lean backwards to make a connection with his head. Whilst Giroud`s outstanding heading ability means that this will may well lead to him reaching a decent goalscoring tally, it makes it significantly more difficult for a team with a possession-focussed playing-style to make supporting runs. The likes of Cazorla, Rosicky, Wilshere, Arteta, Walcott, Gervinho, Chamberlain and Podolski are hardly the most willing or able headerers of the ball (I`m not sure I`ve ever seen a player so averse to heading a football than Gervinho – perhaps he doesn`t want to blemish the polish on his forehead?) and when crosses from deep come in they prefer to sit back and attempt to pick up the pieces rather than gambling on the second-ball.
In layman`s terms, Giroud needs more support. To give him this support, the wide forwards must get tighter to him and provide options for the likes of Cazorla, Rosicky and Wilshere, who would then be able to utilise their close control and one-touch passing in more dangerous areas than those in which they currently tend to find themselves. Of course, this wouldn`t necessarily narrow our offensive focus as it would open up space for the full-backs to drive into, and with the wide forwards playing closer to Giroud, they are likely to have more targets in the box. As an added bonus, this adjustment would move Walcott closer the central role he claims to covert so dearly, and playing in closer proximity to his fellow forwards would surely help Gervinho to play a successful final ball after skipping past defenders. However, with no natural defensive midfielder in the squad, Sagna and the increasingly responsible Gibbs would be hesitant to exploit the space created by this simple formational adjustment whilst the wide forwards are in and around the box and unready to track back. Arteta has performed admirably in an unfavoured deeper role, but his though his positional sense is excellent he lacks the dynamism to act as an effective shield against swift counter-attacks. Despite the regularity of Song`s ill-advised forays forward last season, his presence in the team was clearly of benefit to the confidence of both Gibbs and Sagna to move up their respective flanks, with his enthusiastic covering runs to mop up at left and right-back a regular and memorable sight of the last couple of seasons – arguably unjustly overshadowing those occasions when he was nowhere to be seen.
Hence, despite us having the third best defensive record in the Premier League and though our goal-scoring form is clearly the main issue, I would be more disposed to seeing us invest in a natural defensive midfielder to allow our attacking players to flourish than I would to seeing us add to our lot up front in January – though I`d be far from upset to see quality added in this department as well! Although it`s easy to look back with regret at the quality of offensive players we`ve lost over the last few years, it`s hard to deny that we possess greater individual attacking quality than we are currently showing on the pitch. When Arsenal adopted a 4-3-3 formation in advance of the 09/10 season not only did van Persie have to adapt to his new role as Arsenal`s centre-forward; the team adapted to accommodate his fairly unique way of playing this position. Though it may hurt to admit it, very few players in world football can play the same role and now that we`re without him we need to reacclimatise to support the more traditional centre-forward that we have. For the reasons outline above adding a defensive stabiliser in midfield could prove to be the catalyst for this. Though the addition of offensive players may add horsepower to Arsenal`s engine, it is a natural, disciplined defensive midfielder that could see us finally lift that much talked about handbrake, move up the gears and finally pick up the pace. The change we so desperately require on the pitch is almost certainly not a dramatic one, but its consequences could be.
Rob Stone – @RobStoneAFC (Twitter)