By now, Arsenal have been called everything under the sun.
In the immediate aftermath of the Aston Villa defeat – how sick of that result are we? – the side, and manager, were rightly lambasted from back to front. Arsenal were so shambolic in that first half, something had to change during the break.
Well, it did, but not as we’d hoped. Thomas Partey was forced off through injury and Dani Ceballos replaced him. Alterations to the front line were desired, but perhaps the introduction of a less defensive-minded midfielder could offer Arsenal a different approach beyond the halfway line?
Ceballos ended up playing deeper than Partey did, spraying passes left and right in exactly the same manner but never meandering beyond the opposition midfield. Uninspired and deflating, this wasn’t a first.
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If there is a system in place that yields a result, then by all means keep plucking away. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
Arsenal’s approach play and structure is a deepening puddle on the floor. So far off being solid it’s almost gas. Persisting with that is lunacy. Could it work on occasion? There are examples. When it isn’t paying dividends, however, the 4-3-3 has to come up with something to break the mould. Mikel Arteta has to try a different hand.
Bukayo Saka predominately finds his way towards the left flank from his midfield role, leaving a deep midfield pivot with no options other than out wide. It’s not a particular player’s fault, let’s be clear, but instead the collective following a pattern that perennially reaches a dead end. Build-up play down a cul-de-sac that you’re insistent must have an exit hiding somewhere.
Against Villa, the second half saw Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pick up more central roles. The crowd went mild. Not for him being central, but for the length of time it took to materialise – the game was well beyond Arsenal’s reach at this point. Already we’d been left out in the cold, watching the captain and top scorer cross a ball for Willian to head on to. Not the Arsenal way.
So, what is the fix?
Sometimes, it’s the simple things in life that are most satisfying. Elements such as, y’know, players playing in their best positions, putting their career-defined skill sets to their best use.
Furthermore, a change of personnel to turn the tide and offer other options in central areas; any means of disrupting the opposition centre-backs beyond wild crosses into the box for a 5ft 9in striker to try to head on to.
Releasing the players of their defensive shackles has to be at least dabbled with. Whether this is abandoning the deep-lying double pivot in favour of Ceballos (or Joe Willock, or anyone) sitting in the hole behind the striker, or playing Aubamayeng as a centre-forward but not leaving Alexandre Lacazette on at the same time, and instead playing with actual wingers in those roles.
The options spread beyond the two noted. Arteta, however, has failed to see beyond his ideal outlook of this Arsenal team. We all know the need for a No. 8/10 to assume the creative role, but just because that target hasn’t been acquired yet, doesn’t mean that the system to suit a creative midfielder must be ignored entirely.
It’s a Liverpool-esque fantasy that can’t be matched with the quality of players Arteta has. With quality all over the pitch, the Reds have more strings to their bow if Plan A fails to bear fruit. Arsenal, at the moment, are left waiting on opposition errors or high turnovers for a route at goal.
This 4-3-3 system has scope for fluctuation – that much is seen when it morphs into a back three – but what about making the system more fluid in forward areas? If the avenues to goal aren’t forthcoming, bend the structure and become more interchangeable at the business end of the pitch. It’s all well and good that Granit Xhaka can operate as a left centre-back if needs be, but that formation shift is, in effect, useless for Arsenal as an attacking force.
It’d be nice to imagine that Arteta and his coaching staff are resembling Gandalf in Minas Tirith searching for the origin of the One Ring right about now. Endless documents and tactics sheets piled upon one another.
Whatever solutions or Plan B routes they find have to bear fruit when the season resumes. We yearn for a creative influx, try being creative with the formula first of all.