Monday 23 October 2017

Pick players on merit and five other things Arsenal and Arsene Wenger must do to salvage this season

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez has shown signs of frustration this year
Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez has shown signs of frustration this year

Charlie Eccleshare

After consecutive defeats, Arsenal find themselves 12 points adrift of leaders Chelsea and in danger of missing out on a top four spot.

With their campaign threatening to fall apart, Telegraph Sport looks at the ways the club can save themselves from another season of disappointment.

1. Pick players on merit

After a stodgy display against Burnley, Arsene Wenger freshened things up for the FA Cup trip to Southampton, making 10 changes as his far more fluid team enjoyed a 5-0 win.

Granted Southampton had made wholesale changes themselves, but even so surely at least one of the players who had come in deserved a start for the next game against Watford? Instead all 10 of the players who had been brought into the team at St Mary's were replaced, including Theo Walcott, who had scored a hat-trick and the outstanding Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lucas Perez. Danny Welbeck certainly deserved to keep his place but you could at least understand him being rested given his recent injury problems.

Overall though the message the Watford selection sent out was that no matter how underwhelmingly the first-choice players performed, as they had done against Burnley, they would keep their places irrespective of that and how well their replacements had done in their absence.

It's hard to know what Wenger thought the likes of Gabriel and Aaron Ramsey had done in the previous few weeks to merit starting against Watford, but sure enough they each produced disappointing performances against Walter Mazzarri's side that contributed to the dismal 2-1 defeat.

Olivier Giroud had also been out of sorts against Burnley, and there had been a return to the laborious build-up and lack of fluidity that so often afflicts the team when the Frenchman is leading the line. Arsenal have been so much less predictable with Alexis playing as a centre forward, and any of Walcott, Lucas or Oxlade-Chamberlain could have come in against Watford to allow the Chilean to replace Giroud up front.

Instead Giroud started, and was taken off at half-time after an ineffective 45 minutes. It may have seemed harsh to drop Giroud given he had been in good goalscoring form over the festive period but disappointed rather than complacent players should be an inevitable consequence of having a large squad and genuine competition for places.

2. Find a central midfield partnership that works

Over the course of the season Arsenal have played 16 different combinations in central midfield, with Francis Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain starting together for the first time this season at Chelsea on Saturday.

They were unsurprisingly monstered by the imposing pairing of N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic, and Granit Xhaka's return cannot come soon enough.

Xhaka must cut out the mindless red cards to ensure he's available for the run-in, and Mohamed Elneny's return from the Africa Cup of Nations will be welcome.

But it is also a question of coaching - if Xhaka and Coquelin is to be Wenger's preferred partnership (assuming Cazorla remains injured, and Ramsey's frequent fitness issues means he cannot be relied upon) then the manager must find a way of the pair complementing each other.  

Too often this season when they have played together, Xhaka and Coquelin have struggled to get the balance of offering the back four protection while also providing a platform for attacks. And frequently, as against Everton, Manchester City and for 28 minutes at Bournemouth for instance, they have done neither.

The return of Cazorla is viewed by most supporters as the panacea to the team's current ails, but in reality he is unlikely to play many more games this season.

3. Try something new tactically

When it was announced in December that Cazorla would be out for three more months, I wrote that Wenger would have to get creative to try and offset the loss of such a key player, and that it would not be a simple case of bringing in a like for like replacement.

In the event, Wenger has shied away from radically changing the structure of the team and has instead remained wedded to the 4-2-3-1 system that only really functions effectively when Cazorla is part of the double pivot in central midfield.

The second half of last season when Cazorla was absent proved that, and yet still Wenger persists with a system that doesn't seem to be bringing the best out of his players.

How Arsenal supporters must wish their manager would employ some of the tactical flexibility shown by Antonio Conte, who switched to a 3-4-3 formation after the 3-0 defeat at the Emirates in September and has since seen his Chelsea team transformed into runaway Premier League leaders.

4. Rotate effectively

In recent years, Wenger has struggled with the skill of squad rotation. He is happiest when naming the same team week after week, but the problem with doing that is it runs players into the ground and leaves their replacements looking rusty when they eventually get game time.

Saturday's match against Hull will be instructive about Wenger's willingness to rotate the team ahead of the trip to Bayern Munich four days later, and also his readiness to drop any of the players who under-performed at Stamford Bridge, i.e everyone.

Wenger claims he has the best squad in his 20 plus years at Arsenal. Now it's up to him to use it properly.

5. Cut out the mental aberrations

Clearly this is easier said than done, but how can it be that a group of players as experienced as Arsenal's can be "mentally not ready", to use Wenger's phrase, for a home match against Watford?

No-one is expecting Arsenal to go out and suddenly play with the mental toughness of eleven Roy Keanes, but at the very least they should not be falling victim to complacency given the way they have dropped points against the likes of Swansea last season and Middlesbrough this.

Wenger has brought in New Zealand rugby psychologist Dr Ceri Evans to try and cure the team's mental frailty, but if anything Arsenal have looked weaker than ever this year, especially in their embarrassingly insipid displays at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge.

Somehow Arsenal need to rediscover their early season verve, because at the moment pretty much every match feels like a struggle.

6. Play pairings that work

There was an interesting article on the popular Arsenal fansite Arseblog this week that made the point that Wenger needs to give more thought to the relationships between the individual players to ensure more coherent performances from the team.

For instance if starting Giroud, he must commit to a style of play that suits the Frenchman's more physical approach and put Oxlade-Chamberlain on the wing to deliver crosses, and give Ramsey a more advanced central role to pick up Giroud's flicks and knock downs.

Instead, as was the case against Watford, Wenger started with Giroud up front and Alex Iwobi on the wing, despite the Nigerian's natural inclination to dribble inside and try and play intricate passes rather than heading for the touchline and whipping in crosses for a target man.

The selections led to a lack of fluidity and understanding between the front four, with Giroud being asked to play a role that he patently lacks the mobility and pace for.

This lack of coherence within the front four has been a recurring theme this season- not least during a run in November when Arsenal managed four shots on target in three matches.

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