It’s going to be a long two years

The Arsenal are BACK, baby!

After 45 minutes of relatively good play, and with Stoke’s star attacking player off the pitch with a hamstring injury, Arsenal just needed to be patient, build up the attack, and put Stoke under pressure and they could have easily taken three points. Instead, right from kickoff, Arsenal sent Ramsey forward to play striker, Xhaka made a bad pass to Özil, then compounded the problem by trying to win the ball back, and within a few seconds, Jese scored a great goal, assisted by a fantastic pass from Berahino.

That was 90 seconds into the second half. The first half had seen a legitimate penalty shout denied, and of course the second half would have a good goal chalked off for offside. Even without those complaints, Arsenal created two big chances in the second half, one to Aaron Ramsey who was the hero last week with an almost carbon copy shot, but this week his shot was saved. Statistically speaking, those Big Chances are about 50-50, so (if you’ll indulge me a gambler’s fallacy) the save was expected.

Arsenal lost and the fans had plenty to argue about. The Arsenal are BACK, baby!

The big argument is the one that we have been having at Arsenal for about 4 years now: why is Aaron Ramsey playing as a center forward?

I remember the Invincibles era and I even vividly remember the Fabregas era. I’ve been writing this blog since January 2008, so I have been deeply involved in the debates over the years. I also have a good memory for the way that Arsenal used to play.

In the Invincibles era Wenger played with two deep lying center mids. Patrick Vieira was rarely the solo defensive midfielder, he was typically paired with a player whose job was to sit: Petit, Gilberto, etc.  This doesn’t mean, however, that Vieira roamed forward for Arsenal. He took his midfield duties seriously. He shielded the back four, helped to build play, and powered forward on occasion. In fact, my favorite all time Arsenal goal is his counter attacking run against Tottenham. But the point is that he picked his times to go forward and that most times, the team had balance in midfield.

In the Cesc era that loosened up a bit because Fabregas was both a center mid and Arsenal’s most creative player. It wasn’t all out attack, though, and it took a few years before Cesc was turned into more of a forward than a midfielder. For most of the time, Wenger placed a more defensive-minded midfielder next to Cesc. At first, the feisty Flamini and later he had two midfielders in Denilson and Song and eventually just Song.

That Cesc-era Arsenal had a major flaw, though. It wasn’t so much that the midfield lacked balance but that Arsenal were invited to attack in order for teams to exploit the space between Arsenal’s back two (the fullbacks at Arsenal have been wing backs since the Banter era) and the goal. Time and again, Arsenal used to get caught high up the pitch, and a simple long ball over the top would unlock the defense. This happened so often that Stewart Robson parlayed his phrase “Arsenal’s suicidal high line” into a career as a football pundit.

Fast forward to the last four years, the Dry Powder Era – or maybe it’s better to call it Wenger’s Denouement. What’s happening with Arsenal’s midfield is best illustrated by yesterday’s goal.

As I have already said, Xhaka was at fault for that goal. He misplaced the pass and then stupidly tried to win the ball back. In doing both of those things Xhaka left a massive gap in midfield, one which wasn’t covered by Arsenal’s erstwhile fullback, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Here is the still from right after Xhaka has made his pass and is trying to recover.

The person in the most advanced position in this frame is Aaron Ramsey. And he played in that position for most of the game, taking positions away from Arsenal’s £50m forward, Alexandre Lacazette. Turning Lacazette into the player who was charged with delivering him the ball and not the other way around – as you would expect from a midfielder.

There are a lot of things wrong with this picture. First, this happened during buildup. In a good ball-possession side, you like to develop your buildup slowly so as not to expose your defense with huge gaps. But here, we have Ramsey – Xhaka’s midfield partner – completely out of the buildup and waiting for the ball to be delivered. This is imbalanced.

Second, Xhaka tries to force a pass to Özil and fails.

Third, Xhaka tries to win the ball back. An idiotic move. He surely knows that Ramsey isn’t there to cover. So, the better option there would have been to drop and try to recover the ball off Jese rather than jump into a tackle.

Fourth, Wenger is playing a forward as a fullback. Ox doesn’t drop to cover. He doesn’t try to pick up Jese. He really doesn’t do anything defensively.

But for me the big problem, the one we have been yammering on for four years about, is that Arsene Wenger doesn’t seem to have a problem fielding a team with no real defensive-minded midfielder and seemingly no instructions for the rest of the team on how to cover, hold, and be patient in build-up.

Ramsey gets a lot of anger directed toward him but for me, Wenger is either telling Ramsey to go play as a forward or Ramsey is just going to play as a forward and Wenger isn’t criticizing him for it. In fact, after the match, Wenger blamed the three center backs.

“First we lose the ball in the middle of the park, and after that we gave them too much freedom at the back through the middle and basically gave them a goal. You need to improve the connections with the players but I was not convinced by our central defence today.”

I have watched the replay of this goal a dozen times and honestly, the center backs weren’t that bad. Yes, you could say that maybe Mustafi should have stopped Berahino, but I don’t think he did anything wrong. You could also get frustrated that Monreal let Jese get ball-side, but it wasn’t so much Monreal’s positioning as the fact that he got beat for a stutter step of pace after the through ball was played. For me, the goal was just a brilliant ball and superb finish. If you want to blame anything, you have to blame the imbalance in midfield.

Wenger has gone from a midfield duo of Vieira-Petit to Flamini-Fabregas to Xhaka-Ramsey. This is an abandonment of balance in midfield. I’m not criticizing Ramsey. Aaron had the best chances in the game, which you would expect a center forward to have. Especially when he’s getting great delivery from the other forwards. And I can’t blame him for cherry-picking or for playing in Lacazette’s space. Wenger is the boss. It’s is responsibility to tell Aaron Ramsey where to play.

Wenger also picks the team. So, if the center backs were to blame that’s also on Wenger: he played two left backs as center back, a right back as a left wing back, and a forward as a right wing back. He also picked a midfield with no defensive-minded players, and started Özil in the hole – who has a ton of amazing qualities but defense isn’t one.

This is the new reality at Arsenal. Wenger is now throwing his center backs under the bus left-right-and center to cover for his own tactical blunders. Tactical and, let’s be frank here, also his transfer failings. Wenger has the money to buy players but he’s giving us this song and dance about how he has 33 players now and needs to sell. While fielding an entire team out of position: in addition to makeshift back five, he had Lacazette feeding Ramsey and Ozil trying to cover midfield.

This Arsenal team should easily challenge for the top four. Lacazette has shown in his first two matches that he is a predatory finisher. He got just one shot against Stoke and he scored. I honestly don’t care what the formation’s phone number is: 352, 343, 442, 451, 433, whatever.

I do care about Arsenal playing with two midfielders, who pick their times to make their runs, who balance each other, and who cover for each other’s spaces. And I also care about getting Özil on the ball and having him create for Lacazette.

This should not have been a difficult match for Arsenal. Stoke created just one real chance in this match (their 7amxG was just 0.76) and Arsenal created more than enough even without the referee complaints to win (7amxG 1.62). And if this was any other Arsenal manager, I would give him time to correct these weaknesses in midfield, to buy players, and to get his team clicking going forward. But this is Arsene Wenger and this is what Wenger has been doing for four years. And what I expect him to do for two more years.


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