I struggled this week to muster up the courage to sit and write about the Arsenal. Not because my love for the team has wilted, but because there isn’t much to write that won’t utterly piss off at least half the fan base. A step further, I’m not necessarily worried about pissing off fans, it’s natural that people won’t agree with you; my true worry is how partisan our fan base has become.
We, the supporters, are on the brink of implosion. After coming off a Premier League campaign that saw Arsenal sit atop the league for 120 plus days, albeit with a whimper of a finish, and a death-defying FA Cup trophy, today Arsenal fan’s are far removed from that fateful afternoon in May. The summer break’s unity is all but gone, the rollercoaster is still rolling, and the supporters are as divided as politicians.
The two camps are bigger and stronger than ever. On one side, a loud, passionate, and mostly furious contingent that hurls more mud at our club and manager than any media outlet or opposition fan base. The other end, the love-blinded and passionate zealots that refuse to hoist any level of criticism on the club or manager because “if you don’t support us when we lose, then don’t bother supporting us when we win” or some pithy statement along those lines.
When we lose, I find it harder and harder to stomach the two opposing factions. Thoughtful discussion is as difficult as trying to ‘pick a lock with a wet salmon.’ This isn’t to say that neither side is wrong or right, but maybe, just maybe, it is possible to feel the manager has made a bad decision, and also manage to believe he is not incompetent. Stepping off my soap box, and on to the actual football:
If the supporters are partisan, Ozil is the wedge issue to conquer all other wedge issues. He has been deployed on both the left and right wings this season with less than stellar results. Questions over his desire to play on the wing is often cited when examining his work rate this year, particularly on defense. But what’s new? Ozil’s work rate has been questioned whether playing for Germany, Real Madrid or Arsenal (I can’t speak of his time at Bremen).
Aside from the media and the trolls, whom look to stir the pot when they can, most believe Ozil is a world-class playmaker with subtle yet deliberate movement, both on and off the ball. His skill set is not, however, in providing cover for a full back, but rather in his luring of defenders out of position, effectively creating space for others to explore. With ball at his feet and players of pace ahead of him Ozil has made a name for himself, and that is the biggest issue of all. With Arsenal now equipped with the pace of Sanchez, Welbeck, Chamberlain, and soon Theo Walcott, most would imagine Wenger would be licking his chops to deploy Ozil centrally. But we have not seen it. Maybe it’s the formation…
THE 4-1-4-1 FORMATION
I’m not a master tactician, nor do I pretend to be one on twitter, but I’m not sure the 4-1-4-1 is working for Arsenal, well at least not how I believe it is intended to work. From my understanding, playing a 4-1-4-1 plays into a possession based, high press, high line strategy. The midfielders and striker, the five furthest forward players, are to apply immediate pressure when the opposition obtains possession. The effect is to either win the ball back immediately or if play is built up from the back to move the pressure out to the wings. In addition, by winning the ball back immediately, your attacking players can find themselves in advantageous situations, as was the case against Manchester City last Saturday.
Ramsey, Wilshere, Sanchez, and Welbeck fit the bill (amongst others on our bench), but from his overall body of work Ozil may not be suited for this type of play, at least not once the game moves back into Arsenal’s half. The dilemma is how to integrate Ozil into the team, a player of his quality cannot be overlooked. I believe Arsene Wenger attempts to overcome this by allowing his midfield to be fluid. Ozil’s heat map against Manchester City had him all over the opponents half, not just the left or right side of the pitch. He can press, but where he seems to get the most criticism is when the play shifts onto the back foot, and he is required to assist the fullback in defense. The question remains, is what Ozil does when the team is in possession more important than what he does when the opposition is in possession?
With any high press strategy, counter attacks and balls over the top are the achilles. A combination of physicality, pace, and strength in the air is required for defenders of this system. Any 2 out of 3 for each defender would suffice. The safety blanket is also the single pivot midfielder, a man capable of sniffing out and smothering counter attacks, maybe even be a bit of bruiser himself. Looking at our list of defenders I believe only Laurent Koscienly fits the bill entirely, with Calum Chambers close, but not quiet experienced enough in my imaginary book of experience. Mertesacker towers over the opposition, but not with much authority, nor with any pace. Gibbs has buckets of pace, but isn’t going to Skrtel anyone. Poor Monreal, a good player, but not overly fast, nor overly strong, nor overly good in the air, and not particularly suited for this setup. Debuchy seemed to have the right balance of tenacity and speed, but a torn ligament in his ankle is likely to sideline him for the foreseeable future. And that’s it, there’s no one else to discuss aside from youth players, a flaw in and of itself.
We don’t possess a defensive midfielder with a physical presence. We don’t even possess a central midfielder with the discipline to stay put and at least put on the costume of a defensive midfielder. What I would give to be a fly on the wall of Arsene Wenger’s office when discussion of squad depth, defenders, and defensive midfielders comes up. Are we a club that can’t buy players, or can’t sign them? Or maybe it’s both?
THE PERFECT VILLAIN – ROY KEANE
It is early in the season for a statement match, but I think away to Aston Villa is one. Villa is flying high, grabbing 10 out of 12 points in the first 4 matches. They performed well against a title chasing Liverpool, stifling and snuffing out the scouse attack. Arsenal, coming off a crushing defeat at the hands of Dortmund, and embarrassed again away to a top club, needs to find the confidence it had entering the season. Will Wenger stay the course with the formation, where will Ozil be deployed, are there any half decent defenders looking for a club? None or all of these might be answered this weekend. At the minimum, grabbing three points against our old arch-nemesis, and Aston Villa assistant, the bearded Roy Keane would be a nice way to heal some wounds.
The supporters may very well remain divided, but surely it is too early to say we have been conquered.
Up the Arsenal!