Before the season started I was worried. I was one of the fans that always believed that Robin Van Persie would be plying his trade away from the Emirates by the end of the summer transfer window. And when he left the primary concern was, who would finish the chances that the talented Arsenal midfield is creating? However what Arsenal has displayed recently is not the lack of a finishing ability, but a dearth of chances created. Against Schalke and Norwich, Arsenal hardly looked like scoring at all. And even during QPR the passing seemed slow and the team lacked width. But for an offside Arteta strike from close range, Arsene Wenger would have to ask far more questions of his team. So what is happening?
There are three areas of weakness that have prevented Arsenal from breaking down disciplined defensive units: lack of offensive contribution from the midfield, lack of width in the team leading to congestion in the midfield, and leaving a single striker isolated in the box.
The Arsenal midfield has looked poor without Diaby. Against Liverpool Arsenal looked lively, with Diaby’s surging runs from midfield throwing Liverpool in disarray. His ability to dribble and unlock defenses takes some of the creative pressure off of Cazorla gives Arsenal two creative hubs in the final third, with three finishers in front of them. Against Norwich and Schalke Arsenal looked static and the midfield spent most of the game passing the ball laterally or backwards. With the return of Jack Wilshere against QPR Arsenal showed some dribbling ability and drive from the midfield. This is critical for combating the “smother Cazorla” approach that will be taken by the more defensive minded teams in the League.
Arsenal also suffers from a lack of width and the resulting congestion in the midfield leaving little space to operate. Again this is personnel problem. In the 4-2-3-1, with Giroud up top and Cazorla in behind him, the preferred wide players this season have been Gervinho and Podolski. However both players are in truth wide forwards and have a tendency to drift centrally 18-25 yards out from goal. This creates two problems. First it crowds out the center of the pitch making it far easier to smother Cazorla. Second it provides no width limiting the number of crosses that come into the box. This is particularly problematic when you have a player of Giroud’s size strength and technique occupying space in front of the goal.
Finally Giroud is a player capable of leading the line, but he has looked isolated and out of sync with the team in the Premier League because he is the only recognizable offensive option in the game most of the time. Furthermore Giroud is a player that likes to get other offensive options involved. He holds the ball up well and plays his teammates through. Having him sit deep shadowed by two opposing center backs, with poor aerial service does nothing to utilize his skill set.
The solution is partially a result of players returning from injury and partially a formation change. I’d like to see Arsenal play a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield as shown below.
The first note is that this formation grants the most in form and clinical finisher in the squad right now, Theo Walcott, a role up front. Walcott cannot lead the Arsenal line by himself, and to bench Giroud in place of him would be a mistake. However, Walcott’s pace means that he can finish chances on rapid counterattacks. He has demonstrated in the Capital One Cup that he can link up with Giroud or Chamakh nicely. And putting him in his preferred central role would give Arsenal someone to both play off of Giroud and to be more of a poacher in the box.
The more controversial move is to remove Cazorla from the attacking midfield position that he currently occupies and set him further back. This is in no way a reflection of his performance in the role, but a realization that Cazorla’s immense talents can be utilized more effectively when he has the positional freedom to get wide. Cazorla is the most technically gifted player in the Arsenal squad now. And one of those talents is the ability to put accurate crosses into the box. Playing him further back in the midfield creates the opportunity to play long diagonal balls up field and to get early crosses into the box from the midfield. In addition to Cazorla’s familiarity with playing out wide from his career in La Liga, Cazorla also has the intelligence to know when to drift wide and stretch the defense, and when to use his dribbling skills and vision to drive from the midfield and carve open a defense. And if he tires a bit in this new role, that’s what Diaby and Ramsey are on the bench for.
Similarly any team that Arsenal fields without Podolski will lack long range shooting ability and impressive defensive work rate that he brings to the side. Moving Podolski to a more central role is an acknowledgement that he must be more involved in the run of play than he has been on the left wing. Podolski does not add natural width to the team and forcing him outside regularly allows him to drift in and out of the game. Getting the ball to him in a more central position would allow him to be a more active part of the game and get the ball in better shooting positions. This only works of course if midfield takes up more of the creative burden. As an added benefit to this formation when Podolski gets tired and needs to come out of the game, as it seems he inevitably does every game, a team with a creative player like Arshavin and Cazorla together on the pitch would be quite a sight.
Finally Sagna and Gibbs being back in the Arsenal squad are absolutely critical. Both of these players do something that no one else in the Arsenal starting lineup can do: add width. Despite making great leaps this season and demonstrating that he is the future of Arsenal at right back, Carl Jenkinson’s offensive talents are not yet equal to Sagna’s. On the left, Santos isn’t anywhere close to Gibbs. These two players’ ability to get forward and their willingness to put in a cross creates the width that Arsenal does not get from current wing players Podolski and Gervinho.
While I hope that Arsenal does some shopping in the January transfer window, the problem with this team isn’t talent level or technical prowess, its tactics, formation and determination. Getting Poldolski the ball in more useful areas and playing with two center forwards is critical for increasing the goal scoring output. Further, freeing up space in the middle of the pitch by stretching the game, and providing better service for Giroud is critical for the team’s success. Doing all of these things will at a minimum ensure a good run in the domestic cups and maybe even a dark horse title challenge.