The Title Track
Mathieu Debuchy, Alexis Sanchez, Calum Chambers. A direct replacement, another step, and a wild card, respctively. For a team that has hung on to 3rd and 4th place in the league for most of the past decade, these moves don’t quite feel like emergents past a threshold. At this premature stage, Arsenal only knows that it has added a star player in Sanchez and hopes that it might have unearthed another in Chambers, in whatever position he eventually settles.
Sanchez is another player who, in all likelihood, will (or at least should) predominantly play in a more or less central role; near the top, specifically, as a second striker to Olivier Giroud or Yaya Sanogo. When I accounted for Calum Chambers starting both games for Arsenal in the Emirates Cup at center half back, I made the uncomfortable realization that the team structure vaguely resembles prime roast on Wonder Bread.
This is not comparing the roster’s wing players to the processed and bleached delight of Wonder Bread. Rather, Arsenal has crept to the point in which it has an excess of players who optimally function in a central role and few who fit similarly well as wing players.
Wenger has stated that he views Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a future central midfielder (although he looked overwhelmed at times and made critical errors in other times when at the position last season). Theo Walcott, still in recovery from a knee injury, has made no secret of his preference to line up as a central forward. While both of these players will continue to play on the wing for the immediate future, they will hardly assume primarily peripheral roles in the following years.
A common personnel move employed by Wenger last season was to push Santi Cazorla out to the wing, usually on the left side. Coincidentally, the team often struggled when the short Spaniard played in this role. On an individual level, Cazorla lacks the pace and agility that typically suits the modern winger. On a macro level, Cazorla did not provide much as a defender, occasionally exposing Gibbs or Monreal behind him. Going forward, his aforementioned lack of pace mitigates his off-ball prowess in counter-attacks. A central attacking role, in which ability to protect and move the ball in tight spaces has premium value, suits his game infinitely better.
The attacking central role for Arsenal, which Santi enjoyed during much of his first season with Arsenal, is commandeered primarily by Mesut Özil since his arrival from Real Madrid last summer. When Tomas Rosicky played in place of Özil last season, Cazorla and Rosicky alternatively pushed out to the wing, neither with great aplomb.
The predicament grows deeper (in both senses) in the center of the team’s formation. Last season, Mikel Arteta led Arsenal in tackles and completed passes per game, as well as passing accuracy by a midfielder, all by slight margins. Despite these statistical niceties, Arteta does not serve as the central defensive player that is necessary for a title winning team, especially for a squad that has an abundance of skilled passing maestros and has not yet successfully shaken the ‘soft’ label in the Emirates Stadium era.
When Arsenal suffered its worst losses to top teams last season, a common issue was the capitulation of the space between midfield and the top of the 18 yard box. Arteta simply lacks the physical ability – in strength or energy – to fill space and slow down counterattacks; Mathieu Flamini, on the other hand, provides necessary energy and tenacity, but – as his advanced stats suggest – he lacks the skill, composure, and consistency to properly serve the side on a weekly basis. While Flamini provided a better complementary skill set for Özil, Wilshere, and Cazorla than Arteta, the team needs an upgrade at the base of midfield.
While Arteta, in particular, will continue to regularly start at CDM this season, the hope has to be that Wilshere or Chambers can permanently supplant the Spaniard in the not-so-distant future. If you’re not convinced by the need to change to a more physical presence over Arteta, consider Chelsea and Manchester City last season. In Chelsea’s late contest against Manchester City late in the campaign, Mourinho deployed Nemanja Matic and David Luiz at dual stoppers in front of the defense to slow down David Silva and Yaya Toure.
The effect was apparent. Chelsea came out victorious in a drudging 1-0 result.
In last year’s contests against Manchester City and Chelsea, in which Arsenal was outscored by a total of 9 goals (13 goals allowed vs four scored), City’s Fernandinho and Chelsea’s Matic/Luiz combination consistently reduced time and space in the middle of the pitch for the likes of Ramsey, Özil, and Rosicky. While the two worst defensive performances could be partially explained by an all-out attacking strategy at the Etihad and a red card in Stamford Bridge (the infamous Gibbs/Chambo mix-up), the common link was Arsenal’s inability to effectively pressure on the break.
The need for a more physical presence in CDM is accentuated by the occasional disappearance of at least one of Arsenal’s fullbacks (watch first goal by Eto’o), usually due to aggressive positioning on attacking set pieces. The effect of a successive breakaway had a usual effect of mismatches and disorganization once enough bodies retreated in time, while other times, the two players back were quickly left stranded and a goal was scored in quick succession.
While Ramsey is a guaranteed starter in any formation, Wilshere – the name on every Arsenal fan’s lips three seasons ago – is in danger of becoming an odd man out within the squad. Yet another player well capable of fulfilling main playmaking duties, Wilshere will likely continue to play deeper in the pitch. If he stays healthy this season, he and Ramsey could end up constructing the central midfield base that every Gooner hoped would come to fruition over the past few years.
The health of Ramsey and Wilshere, on an individual level, holds more weight for Wilshere, who has yet to return to his on-field heights from the 2010-11 season. He showed glimpses, but Wenger must resist the temptation to play him out wide in order for him to optimally develop into the position that is his preferred spot and his likely long-term place on the field.
So who does that leave for the wing spots? Walcott, Chamberlain, Lukas Podolski, Serge Gnabry, and Joel Campbell.
Early in the calendar year, upon his return from injury, Podolski dealt with puzzling cameo appearances with a few minutes left or full game benching from Wenger in league play. While the manager maintained later that these particular personnel choices were made to grant the German amble time to return to full fitness, a preference to play Santi and Ox certainly had a part.
It was only when the team’s injuries compiled most extensively in February that Podolski returned as a regular starter, in which the team’s play improved considerably with the addition of a prototypical winger and additional goal scorer. Against Bayern Munich in the first knockout stage of the Champions League and against Swansea (H), West Ham (H), and Hull City (A) in the last quarter of last season, Podolski was arguably Arsenal’s most important player.
Joel Campbell, a relatively unknown entity, has done everything in his power – between the start of the World Cup and preseason – to demand playing time before Walcott returns from injury and lays his claim up front on the right. Perhaps Campbell’s placement on the right wing against Benefica foreshadows opportunity at the position once the season commences, but with few other immediate options, Campbell has all of the tools to make an impact at that position – off-ball intelligence, improvement in link-up play, speed, toughness, dribbling skill, considerable finishing prowess – even if more prominent names crowd his own in midfield.
While Wenger has proven the world wrong on countless occasions, he has not missed opportunities to outsmart himself in recent years. Great talent at one position does not necessarily translate to another. While Chambers has the athleticism and molten skill set to potentially fit any outfield position in the defensive half (or even on the wings), playing any of the team’s many central midfielders – Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere, Rosicky, Özil – out wide undermines the respective player’s skill set and effectively compromises the team’s overall ability.
For Arsenal to make another title push, Wenger needs to recognize what he currently has at wing options and use them out wide instead of pulling central midfielders to the periphery, even if he regards the central midfielder more highly as an overall footballer. His trust in Sanogo may eventually serve as another exemplary sample of his ability to unearth talent and inspire greatness when given a proper opportunity.
Particularly in the case of Arteta at CDM and Podolski and Campbell as starting wing options early in the season, Arsene needs to remain mindful of past lessons for Arsenal to make another step forward. The team does not yet seem ready to overcome its fellow title-contending demons and a title would be (improbably) won in spite of this. As the squad stands, another season will likely pass without a league title, but 2nd place will accurately mark a step in the right direction for a club that is finally matching upside with current production.