In the aftermath of Manchester United’s ruthless demolition of Arsenal at the Emirates, I spoke to a neutral fan who maintained that the style of football exhibited by Arsene Wenger’s side made them the team worthy of the greater praise, in terms of their footballing principles at least. The view that Arsenal’s football is bordering on perfection is all too often thrust in our faces by the media and Sky Sports fans. Following the 3-1 defeat to Ferguson’s side, who themselves played some counter-attacking football of the very highest quality, it is worth questioning the validity of this notion.
Although I am a fan of Arsenal’s free-flowing style of play, the art behind football must surely be the winning of a match. The combination of attacking flair, defensive solidarity, acquisition of suitable players and ability to integrate them into an effective tactical system is where the beauty of football lies. Whilst Arsenal’s football is pleasing on the eye, it is not perfection and is a long way short of being an effective method with which to win titles.
As my previous article shows, I have previously turned a blind eye to Arsenal’s weaknesses as they have torn their way through the weaker defences in the league. The ease of Manchester United’s victory, coupled with the similar nature of Chelsea’s victory at the Emirates earlier in the season, provides a vivid indication of the major flaw within Wenger’s squad. Whilst they deserve praise for their style of play, Arsenal will not be a successful team until they have a balance that allows the perfection Wenger strives for.
Manchester United deserve great credit for their performance at the Emirates. However, for every United strength, it is possible to point to a major Arsenal weakness. Whilst Wenger is deserving of praise for his faith in the youth system and sustainable running of the football club, it is baffling that he continues to overlook certain aspects of the game. Owen Coyle, Steve Bruce, Martin O’Neill, Alex McLeish and even the much-maligned Rafa Benitez have received praise for their tactical approach to games against Manchester United this season. Each manager made sure that his team was putting United’s midfield under pressure from the first minute of the match, thus preventing them from having the time to settle into the match. The desire of players such as Lee Cattermole, Barry Ferguson and Javier Mascherano to shut down the opposition was infectious and spread throughout the team. In each instance, Manchester United dropped points. They failed to develop any sense of rhythm in their attacks and their passing was lacking the accuracy needed to break through defences.
The fact that this ploy was blindingly obvious to the vast majority of football fans makes it all the more unbelievable that Arsenal were so lacklustre in their pressing of the ball at the weekend. Arsenal desperately needed a strong challenge to be made in the opening minute of the match to set the standard for the following eighty-nine. When players with the quality possessed by Fletcher, Carrick and Scholes are allowed to take a grip on the midfield with such consummate ease, half of the battle has already been lost. Furthermore, there was little pressure upon United’s attacking trio of the tireless Park, rapidly-improving Nani and the simply sensational Wayne Rooney. Nani in particular couldn’t have asked for a more comfortable afternoon in London. Despite his inconsistency, Nani poses a threat when he is allowed to run at opposition defences at high speed. When defences get tight to him early, his threat it often nullified as the Portuguese winger lacks the upper body strength to hold off more robust challenges. Whichever full back he attacked, Arsenal allowed him to reach full speed before attempting to stop him. By failing to nullify the threat early in the move, the Arsenal backline were up against it for the entire game.
The clearest example of Arsenal’s lax approach to closing the ball down was the third United goal. Despite the terrific interplay that put Park in the clear, there was plenty of time for Gaël Clichy to block the Korean’s route to goal. Even considering the overlapping runs behind him, Clichy’s immediate instinct had to be to snuff out the primary danger. Although he would have relied upon a misplaced pass or an offside decision to prevent a shot at goal, it would have been a far better option than the one he opted for, to allow Park a free stroll towards the goal. This is an example of awful defending but the principles remain clear. Not until they were trailing by three goals did an Arsenal player close down an opposition player with any intent. Whether Wenger neglected to incorporate this into his team talk is debatable but the key to beating Ferguson’s side was evidently ignored by his players. As the Champions League defeat last season reinforces, Sir Alex seems to have the tactical acumen to dispose of Wenger’s sides with a worrying ease.
Playing in this manner, Arsenal will not be a successful side over the course of the season. They will record victories, maybe scoring a hatful of goals against bottom-half opposition, but they lack the balance within the team to challenge the best sides. Nobody should be calling for a complete overhaul of the Arsenal squad or their style of play. Their devastating attacking play is of benefit to football in this country as a whole. However, it is vital that Wenger takes the opportunity to modify his squad. The best teams in the world can win a match in several ways. Arsenal can win a match in one.
As transfer deadline day winds down with an apparent lack of activity at the Emirates, there is a feeling amongst the majority of Arsenal fans that subtle change is required. Wenger claims that money is available should he need it. At this moment in time, he is the only person who believes that he doesn’t. Although a Vieira style midfielder who can combine elegant passing with the midfield enforcer role would be ideal, there are many smaller players who would make an enormous difference to Arsenal’s team. A player in the mould of a Mascherano, a Cattermole or even a Scott Parker would provide Wenger with some much needed grit in the middle of the field. Mathieu Flamini was potentially that player until he left the club. It is vital for Arsenal that Wenger signs a player to do his job sooner rather than later. Alex Song is a promising player but lacks the ability to take a game by the scruff of the neck.
Furthermore, Arsenal fans should be crying out for a natural striker to hold the ball up at the top of the field. All too often against United the ball would be played into the likes of Arshavin and Nasri around the box, only for them to be muscled off the ball. As soon as this happened, Arsenal were exposed and the pace of Nani and Rooney in particular tore the defenders to shreds. If Wenger is to be successful, something that is entirely possible with outstanding players such as Fabregas and Arshavin, he needs to integrate the appropriate personnel into an appropriate system. Arsenal’s style of play is their strength and should not be discarded. However, subtle modification is vital if Arsenal are to compete with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United at the top of the Premier League. Both games at the Emirates have highlighted the current gulf between the sides. The positive aspect for Arsenal fans is that the problem is easily corrected. The worry is that Wenger won’t change his mindset and will persist with a system that can’t win games against the more best sides.
Before the match against Manchester United, Arsene Wenger claimed that his side were a ‘different animal’ to the one that was overwhelmed by United in the Champions League last season. Following a worryingly similar repeat of that defeat, it is time for Wenger to make changes. As a man who seeks perfection, it is difficult to see how Wenger can persevere with the current system. For all of the positive aspects of Arsenal’s crisp passing moves, the blatant imbalance of the team is far from perfect. Whilst there is an element of beauty to Arsenal’s play, the only team to leave the Emirates with any credit were United. The efficient demolition of Arsenal was beauty in itself.