Arsenal's Adaptation Is A Positive Sign Of Progression
“The thing about Arsenal is, they always try and walk it in.”
The above quote, or variations of it, was so commonly used by people who talk about football that it actually featured on the Channel 4 sitcom ‘The IT Crowd’, in which it was said by people who don’t usually talk about football. It’s a reputation that Arsenal have gained during Arsène Wenger’s tenure. ‘Le Professeur’ is an advocate of attractive, attacking football and is so synonymous with the quick passing style he encourages that Arsenal fans refer to it as ‘Wengerball’. When it works, it’s hard to argue that there’s a more aesthetically pleasing version of the game to watch, or a more all-inclusive, team-orientated style. But the problem is, it doesn’t work all of the time and when that’s the case, it can end rather embarrassingly for both the Arsenal team and their fans.
There’s too many examples to count, let alone remember, of Arsenal having their own weapon used against them, as it were. But last season’s results at Liverpool and Chelsea were the worst in recent memory. The Gunner’s gung-ho approach to both games resulted in their stretched structure being exposed and ultimately torn to pieces. Wenger’s reluctance to mitigate the circumstances during the game was perhaps the most worrying thing of all and as a result he lost the trust of many fans who’d previously backed him through the toughest of times. If it weren’t for the FA Cup win, we may’ve seen much more unrest during what would’ve been a very different summer at Arsenal.
However, this season Arsenal have been different. Before focusing on their newfound approach to tough away games, it’s important to highlight that even in games we’d expect Arsenal to be dominant, they’ve been less dependable on possession and relied more on counter attacks and set pieces. This change is so evident that Arsenal are in fact the Premier League’s top scorers from set-pieces with 14 goals.
This is not to say that Arsenal don’t have the ball a lot of the time, they still do. But even if they do edge the possession percentage in most games, they seem to do less with it. This shouldn’t be seen as a negative, however, because the reason for this shift is possibly also the catalyst for a change in approach in certain games.
The reason alluded to and one of the main reasons why Arsenal haven’t seemed as direct when they have the ball is because of the lack of Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard has been injured for most of the season as he realises the struggles of being an aging player in one of the Premier League’s elite sides. Even though many fans (fairly) believe that drop in physical output is a reason Arteta is no longer as effective in the more defensive midfield role, the fact is that his role in retaining and recycling possession is crucial to a certain style of play.
The most obvious and recurring situation that arises as a result of Arteta’s absence is the lack of a constant central outlet for the centre-backs. Until recently when Santi Cazorla has been dropping deeper, there has rarely been anyone offering a path to the midfield from defense. This, in turn, has caused an increased use of the flanks and side-to-side passing causing stagnant possession play.
It almost seems as if this has prompted Wenger to change the way Arsenal approach games and exploit opponents, especially in those away games against ‘big’ sides. The game against Manchester City away from home was the biggest step forward Arsenal have taken in a very, very long time. Even the game against Tottenham was encouraging on a purely tactical level, although the players were simply a bit crap and the result went against them. The games showed that Arsenal are adapting to the requirements of a modern game that increasingly demands managers and players to think on their feet and the play the field how it is, not how they want it to be.
Ultimately, Arsenal have not revolutionised their style of play, nor have they lost their identity as a team who play good football. Instead, Arsenal have diversified and thus increased the number of options they have with regards to approaching a game. They will always be able to play ‘Wengerball’ with the likes of Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla in the side (we’ve seen them do so in recent games), but the ability to pick and choose their moments will be the real key to success. It’s also good to see a manager like Wenger, who is both admired and criticised for his devotion to beautiful football, seemingly accepting the realities of the modern and ever-changing game. Arsenal fans can only hope it continues and leads to more trophies in the near future.