Why Wenger's Stubbornness Ruined Arsenal's Title Hopes
Up until their fateful visit to Anfield back in February, Arsenal were flying; Wenger, Ozil & co. leading the Gunners’ renaissance back to the pinnacle of the English game.
The freshness and newfound resilience in the players was breeding a confidence around the club. While rarely at their fluent best, a strong defensive quintet formed the base for a series of gritty and determined victories, keeping them competitive on three fronts.
The trauma on Merseyside, and subsequent capitulations at Chelsea & Everton, have since significantly derailed Arsenal’s season in an all too familiar fashion.
With injuries, tired players, and ultimately tired ideas, Wenger’s side have completely stagnated; becoming stale and far too predictable.
While the 64 year old’s tried and tested formula is coming under scrutiny, Brendan Rodgers’ vibrant philosophy has been greatly vindicated; with his young Liverpool side sitting pretty atop the Premier League table in April, scoring an unheralded 90 goals to date.
It is remarkable variation and fluidity that has been at the forefront of Rodgers’ and Liverpool’s success this season.
Their squad is such that it allows for three different formations; a midfield diamond, a traditional 4-3-3, and a 4-4-2 with two advanced wide midfielders. To look at their domestic rivals – Chelsea regularly use two systems, as do Manchester City. While Arsenal, and namely Wenger, refuse to stray from his archetypal 4-2-3-1.
While Liverpool have had the benefit of not playing mid-week European games like their closest challengers, and thus been able to fully focus on the weekend’s opponents; Rodgers’ tactical versatility allows him to set up differently week-to-week to suit different opposition and scenarios.
Arsenal cannot and will not do this. After going two goals down within eight minutes at Stamford Bridge there was no adjustment. No change in approach, no admittance of getting it wrong and trying to get to half-time still in the game. Most annoyingly for Arsenal fans, there was absolutely no change from their performance at Anfield where they were likewise blown over in the first 20 minutes.
Liverpool press with such intensity that they are able to win the ball high up the field and keep the opposition penned in. They have such pace in their attack that they are able to break effectively, as well as play on the counter decisively. A sheer lack of preparation and respect from opposing managers has seen teams set up far too open with a high defensive line, ala Arsenal, only to be blitzed by Rodgers’ rampant front three of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge & Raheem Sterling.
Last weekend West Ham defended deep, and while victory ultimately came from two somewhat fortuitous penalties, Liverpool were able to patiently probe and still managed to create openings. In Phillipe Coutinho, they have a player capable of playing the decisive ball that allows them to still be a threat against teams who defend differently.
With Olivier Giroud up front and without Theo Walcott, Arsenal have no threat to run in behind opposition defences. Teams are able to press them higher up the field, refusing to afford their creative midfielders the space and time they crave.
Without Mesut Ozil, Arsenal have struggled severely for fluidity and incision but Wenger refuses to change his style, leaving them devoid of ideas and creativity in recent weeks, notably against Swansea. Only when the game became stretched late on were the Gunners able to create anything of note.
Such are Ozil & Aaron Ramsey’s ability to maintain any tempo during a counter attack or sustained period of pressure, they became crucial to their side’s attacking force. While injured, both have simply been irreplaceable but there has been no attempt to alter the system to try and get the best of the players Wenger does have at his disposal.
For example, with Ramsey’s penetrative runs from deep being so fruitful, Wenger could have attempted to play with a similar box-to-box midfielder in the Welshman’s absence – against City (H), their goal came from Mathieu Flamini arriving in the box from deep. Instead, Wenger persisted with moving Mikel Arteta slightly further forward. For all the Spaniard’s qualities, he is simply unable to provide that energetic burst from midfield, which our performances had been crying out for.
While I am as big a Wenger sympathiser as you’ll meet, I do think it’s time for a progressive change. Not of the manager, but in the manager if Arsenal are to sustain their domestic and European charge next season.
Follow Jack on Twitter, @JackBradshawAFC