When one talks about a classic Arsene Wenger side, ‘defence’ is not the first word that springs to mind. That’s not to say this aspect of the game has been completely ignored during his Arsenal tenure – despite arguments that suggest otherwise – but it has never been his strongest attribute.
‘Attack’, on the other hand, used to be the hallmark of the Frenchman’s team’s, something that could be readily associated with Arsenal even over the course of his less successful second act in North London. The words “used to be” are key here, because it looks like even this trademark characteristic was too much to ask for at times this season.
There were few positives to take from a string of narrow – and sometimes, lucky – wins, frustrating draws and dull defeats, combined with baffling, un-Arsenal-like performances and a dismal away form. The dire need for direction was palpable. With Wenger’s position as grim as ever and the (now annual) calls for his exit in full swing, a first-ever FA Cup third round exit was the last thing needed. the Gunners were out of firepower, dealing with a shared loss of form and identity with no solution in sight.
Amidst all this confusion, the speculation and uncertainty surrounding Alexis Sanchez loomed large over the squad, although the club’s handling of the situation was far from ideal. The Chilean’s contributions should in no way be undermined – his moments of brilliance, however few they might have been, played their part in earning valuable points – but it was clear to see that at the tail-end of his time at the Emirates, his teammates weren’t quite on the same wavelength and the results on the pitch were hardly helping the cause.
Wins against Crystal Palace and Chelsea provided some much-needed, if momentary, respite during what has been termed a crisis. It’s not like Arsenal have suddenly transformed into world-beaters, but it was no surprise that they played like a weight had being lifted off their shoulders after Sanchez’s departure was officially confirmed. It’s not all bad news, however. This is an opportunity to start again, to focus on the unit as a whole and avoid relying on a single component. It was visible, in the very initial stages, in the aforementioned fixtures.
The dynamic seems to be shifting from supreme individualism to collective efforts, and Arsenal’s tactical flexibility was also on display as Wenger once again outwitted Antonio Conte. The Italian’s frustration after the game was evident, although we didn’t get to see his tenacious ‘mafia boss’ personality from his Juventus days that came to light earlier this month during his war of words with Jose Mourinho. But perhaps that’s because Wenger is a class apart from the Manchester United manager.
While Don Antonio (the name I’ve given to Conte’s newly-invented alternate dark side) may have resurfaced and disappeared – but might make an appearance again when his side visit Old Trafford next month – it’s Wenger who might have to go full Vito Corleone and make Mesut Ozil an offer he can’t refuse…in financial terms, obviously.
The German’s fine form has provided a glimmer o joy in this rather gloomy domestic campaign and in his absence, Arsenal have been guilty of looking like a team distinctly left wanting for a creative outlet. At least in the short-term, Ozil is the key to restoring harmony and fixing this broken record of a club: the perfect conductor for the Wengerball Orchestra. To lose someone of his calibre for nothing would be a significant blow, and Arsenal will hope that the arrival of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and -possibly – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be enough to convince him to stay, if only for the foreseeable future.
Mkhitaryan is without a doubt a better fit for Arsenal’s style of play than he was for United’s and it’s possible he could rediscover his mojo in a system that suits him. Whether Wenger can still work his magic is a different matter, but the prospect of him linking up with his former Borussia Dortmund teammate and completing a high-profile front four with Alexandre Lacazette and Ozil is a tantalising prospect.
Of course, the signings of this transfer window will not solve the problems in other areas of the pitch, but they could help spark the massive rebuilding job that awaits in the summer. In recent years, it has been established that contract negotiations and transfer pursuits take an eternity at Arsenal, and this transfer window further highlighted another glaringly obvious problem: lack of planning.
The example of Francis Coquelin may not provide the best illustration, but it gets the point across. The 26-year-old signed a new long-term deal almost exactly a year before his departure, only to be deemed surplus to requirements due to a simple formation change – which itself was a last-ditch attempt at salvaging the 2016/17 season. Now, Arsenal’s attempt to bring in Aubameyang is seen by some as a panic buy, but the general consensus seems to be that some activity in the transfer market is better than taking no action at all.
There’s only one way to find out if this turns out to be yet another false dawn, but signs that the club are willing to rectify their repeated shortcomings – both on and off the pitch – with unprecedented behind-the-scenes appointments are encouraging. For now, Wenger is addressing his squad’s issues in the most Wenger-esque manner possible: by strengthening the attack.
What do you make of these thoughts? Let us know in the comments below!