Arsenal’s 2-2 draw at the Emirates against Hull City might have been understandable, or acceptable, in the opening couple of games of the season. It could have been explained by saying it was a team that was still ironing out a few issues with fluidity. With new players bedding in, things not quite clicking would have seemed ok. By the middle of October, that shouldn’t be happening.
The Gunners have had some serious disruption from injuries, making it difficult to select a consistent team, but at this stage of the season, it’s not unreasonable to expect to see some understanding between the players, and for those in red and white to look somewhat familiar with their roles in the team.
There are obvious, and well documented, issues at the back with squad depth. However, the other main problem that struck me about the team’s performance on Saturday is the apparent confusion over who is doing what in midfield. Last season, Arsenal nearly exclusively played 4-2-3-1, and the midfield five seemed to know their roles, understood when to break forward, who was meant to be the creative hub and when to bring others into play. Generally, I’m all for being a bit more fluid and giving the players a bit more license to not be as rigid, but this tinkering has left Arsenal playing a strange amalgamation of 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1.
After being reported as saying that Jack Wilshere is wasted as a defensive midfielder for England, part of me thinks that Arsene Wenger was trying to prove a point by having Wilshere being the player that was predominantly getting closer to the main striker against Hull, particularly in the first half. This meant that Santi Cazorla was sometimes alongside Mathieu Flamini, and while that worked with Ozil in the team against Galatasaray, without the German, Cazorla needs to be higher up the pitch to tick things over and create opportunities.
On the wings, I’m not sure as to why Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played on the left for the majority of the game, with Alexis Sanchez on the right. Even though the Chilean was superb and scored a delightful goal from the ring wing position, Arsenal didn’t get anywhere near the best out of the Ox by having him on the left. It’s a position he’s rarely played and restricted the options on that side as his inclination was generally to cut inside onto his right foot. Unfortunately, it was just one of those days where nothing went for Oxlade-Chamberlain and he had a mare.
I was staggered to see Aaron Ramsey included on the bench after Arsene Wenger said he wouldn’t return to training until Monday, but needs must with the injury situation being beyond a joke now. Understandably for a player that shouldn’t really have been out there before properly completing his recovery, Ramsey didn’t quite look on the pace, but again, there seemed to be some confusion between the players over how the midfield should have been set up when the Welshman was introduced.
Most things that you read or hear from ex-players about Arsene Wenger often mention the trust he has in his players, and how he often leaves them to work out something for themselves. Whether that is what is happening with the midfield at the moment would be complete speculation, but hopefully he can see that of the various things that have been tried in there, it was no coincidence that the more structured 4-2-3-1 played away at Aston Villa produced the most dominant and controlled performance. The players were familiar with it, were playing in positions that played to their strengths and they combined well to score some good goals. In the league, that has been all too uncommon this season. Wenger needs to show some decisiveness as the boss and get some structure into the centre of the park.
I’m getting extremely tired of waiting for this midfield to click. When it does, it could be sensational, but we’re past the time for experimenting. Arsenal need wins and not stupid dropped points. It might not bring the liquid football that Arsene Wenger aspires for his teams to play, but implementing a more rigid and understandable midfield formation could go a long way to injecting some desperately-needed momentum into this season.
Those who would profit from some good service from the midfield, Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, looked sharp around the box against Hull, and both added a goal to their growing tally since arriving in the summer. The two have 11 goals between them, which is a very healthy return, and suggests that when the Gunners have a settled midfield supplying chances, they’ll pose serious problems to the opposition.
Seeing the promising signs from Welbeck and Sanchez almost makes this random run of form from the team all the more frustrating. It doesn’t feel like Arsenal are far from being an excellent team again, and it always feels like there’s enough talent in the team to not just hand out some defeats, but hand out some serious thrashings. Yet what feels like a small difference still hasn’t been sorted and Arsenal are 11 points off the top of the table. If things do finally click into place for the Gunners, there’s already a fear that the team are beyond the tipping point of being able to mount a serious title challenge this season.