I sat there yesterday watching Arsenal lose 2-0 to Österblender, a team who usually play against caribou, and thought “this has to be it for Wenger.” That even Wenger has to admit that whatever powers he once had have gone.
This loss wasn’t about preparation, Wenger had a week to get his team prepared for this match. This wasn’t about lineups, he knew what his lineup would be last week as well and it’s nearly the same lineup that beat Östersund 3-0 just last week. This was a failure of coaching on multiple levels.
A lot of folks are blaming individual players and Ainsley Maitland-Niles is taking the majority of the blame for last night’s defeat. But he was hardly even a bad player on the night, much less the worst player on the team in that first half.
Maitland-Niles was deployed by Wenger in that bizarre “between-the-lines” forward DM position that he put Coquelin toward the end of his Arsenal career. Maybe you don’t know what position I’m talking about so let me describe: Wenger deployed Coquelin in front of the other central midfielder. There, it was his job to start the press early and recycle possession. Coquelin would pop up between the opposition two banks of four and present himself for passes or try to press. It was exactly wrong for Coquelin’s strengths and weaknesses.
Coquelin was never going to be good at receiving the ball in tight spaces. He was never going to be good high up the pitch because he’s not a creative midfielder. His best position was in front of the back four, snuffing out counters, and playing where he could have more time on the ball. Deployed further up the pitch, Coquelin’s tackles numbers dropped, his interceptions numbers disappeared, his turnovers numbers went up, and his fundamental weakness with the ball was exposed.
Here is Maitland-Niles’ touch map last night:
Maitland-Niles was deployed ahead of Elneny. That was where Wenger wanted him. That was where he played. He had zero tackles, zero interceptions, and zero blocks. Which isn’t a surprise because there was no one to tackle, no passes to intercept or block because Östersund were playing on the counter. AMN also had six bad passes and all of his completed passes were sideways from that forward position to either Iwobi or Mkhitaryan.
AMN was guilty of failing to sprint back on one possession (they didn’t score) letting his marker run past him. He also gave away one foul when he did track back and try to win the ball back.
Maitland-Niles wasn’t the worst player in that half. That was either Mkhitaryan or Kolasinac, you pick. Mkhitaryan couldn’t make a pass. He kept kicking the ball right to the opponent’s feet. Mkhitaryan made 15/28 passes. 13 times in that first half, he just kicked the ball to his opponents.
And the defense was a shambles. In the first half away, Mkhi made four tackles. Last night? He made two. That made him the most defensive player on the pitch in the first half. Wenger’s formation of Iwobi, Wilshere, Welbeck, Elneny and Kolasinac (with Maitland-Niles deployed high up the pitch) were opened up like a tin of beans over and over again by Ostersund’s Ghoddos.
That is a mystery for some people. How can Arsene Wenger manage both the Invincibles, the best defensive team in England, and this weird defensive team that Arsenal have become since 2007? Players on this Arsenal team do not understand defensive fundamentals. Wilshere has been at Arsenal since 2001 and he has never learned how to defend. It’s not just Wilshere, there’s a ton of evidence that Wenger makes defenders worse.
Bellerin has taken two steps back from his breakout season. Kolasinac was in the Bundesliga team of the year last year and now at Arsenal he is such a liability on defense that he has been replaced at left back by a right footed 20 year old. Kolasinac was at fault for their first goal, giving away the error. Mertesacker was dropped for high-profile errors. Vermaelen was dropped for high-profile errors. Gabriel was sold for high-profile errors. Szczesny was sold after a blowout with the manager over his errors. Petr Cech has gotten demonstrably worse every year at Arsenal.
That leaves the question: were the Invincibles self-managing or has Wenger lost his powers? I’ve read the Invincibles book, Tony Adams’ book, the Thierry Henry book, and Bergkamp’s book and in those pages there is convincing evidence that the Invincibles (and Adams before) were mostly self-managing. Or as Wenger likes to put it they were figuring things out for themselves on the pitch.
There are no excuses for the way that this Arsenal team play. This isn’t about lineups or personnel. They were just beaten by a team from Sweden with a budget comparable to what Arsenal pay for one player. A team that didn’t even do anything special – they just played a 442 and countered when Arsenal turned the ball over. There were no tricks, no traps, no crazy lineup changes, and no pressure on the ball. It was as straight a 442 as you will ever see.
I’ve been watching Arsenal for 20 years and things like brain farts (Vermaelen’s flying clearance against Spurs, Gabriel red card against Chelsea, etc), errors (Clichy penalty against Birmingham, Kolasinac errors, Cech errors, Szczesny errors, etc), players not tracking back (Denilson, Iwobi, AMN, etc), not being switched on (last night, Stoke, Swansea, Forrest, THOSE ARE JUST THIS SEASON), and lazy defending (watch any play, there will almost always be a player “hanging back” in an advanced position) are so ingrained in this team that they are no longer bugs. If this was software, they would be called features.
Arsenal were lucky to scrape through. By throwing 7 men into the Östersund 18 yard box, Arsenal were able to get a goal. Kolasinac makes a better forward than a defender. Maybe Wenger should play him up front instead of Iwobi, who has nearly perfected the skill of giving his marker a shimmy shake right before turning the ball over.
Arsenal face Gennaro Gattuso’s AC Milan in the next round. AC is a club in turmoil. Their owner is bankrupt and his assets being sold off to pay creditors. Despite the problems in the boardroom, Gattuso was appointed manager in November. It took him over a moth to install his way of playing but since December 27th, AC Milan have gone 11 matches undefeated and climbed up the Serie A table to 7th place. AC Milan had a similar result to Arsenal in the first leg against Ludogorets beating them 3-0 away. And when they went home to the San Siro, Milan took care of business and won 1-0.
It’s not going to be an easy match for Arsenal. Especially since Wenger’s teams love to shoot themselves in the feet.