Manager uncertainty, midfield mess, mental block: Five areas behind Arsenal's malaise
Arsene Wenger and Arsenal suffered yet another Premier League defeat at the weekend to leave them all but out of the title chase. Here are five areas behind their recent slump.
There was a theoretical possibility this time last week for Arsenal to move three points off Chelsea by Saturday evening. That they are instead 12 adrift and Wenger was yet again left referencing “very naive” defending and a “lack of maturity” will surprise few.
They have faltered at their moment of greatest opportunity. Wenger acknowledged that his team now “have a mountain to climb” but an admission that the damage might have been done against Watford was instructive.
Wenger always plays down the mental issue but his appointment of former rugby psychologist Dr Ceri Evans points at recognition of a debilitating problem.
Wenger looked almost incredulous last week at the idea that his ambiguous longer-term future should impact on the here and now.
It might not change how he does his job but the unmistakeable truth is that it contributes to a wider uncertainty that affects supporters and perhaps also players.
The ‘Wenger In/Out’ debate is back in full swing but has oxygen precisely because nobody knows what will happen in June. That feeds tension as soon as something goes wrong and, while few will believe that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain deliberately ‘liked’ a Wenger Out post on Twitter, the fact he was scrolling through such messages shows how the players are acutely conscious of the wider environment.
Arsenal have long had contingency plans for Wenger’s departure and ideally still want him to stay but, with Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez also stalling over their future, there is a wider paralysis that feeds negativity and risks giving team-mates an excuse.
That there have been 16 central midfield combinations this season underlines how Wenger still has no clear idea of his best pairing without Santi Cazorla.
It was in October that Cazorla suffered his ankle injury and, after a similarly costly absence last season, Arsenal must sadly now plan without his regular presence. Granit Xhaka’s stupidity two weeks ago against Burnley meant that he was sorely missed on Saturday while Aaron Ramsey’s susceptibility to muscular injuries raises familiar questions about the club’s preparation.
The biggest issue, however, remains in the more defensive screening role. Francis Coquelin is a reasonable option but not in the same class as Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante or Nemanja Matic. Kante should surely have been the priority signing last summer. Jack Wilshere was not the answer all season but the decision to not at least have the possibility to recall him in January was baffling.
Big players go missing
Wenger rarely singles out individuals but it was not difficult to sense his targets when he noted on Saturday that “even our experienced players were not at their best”.
He also stressed that his main emotions were anger and disappointment. Arsenal’s longest serving player is Theo Walcott but his failure to track Marcos Alonso for Chelsea’s first was more than just an individual error, as anyone who saw similarly feeble defensive moments from the likes Lukas Podolski, Andrei Arshavin and Mesut Ozil would testify.
It is a problem of culture. Ozil was just as far behind Eden Hazard defensively as he was offensively on Saturday, while Alexis Sanchez again cut a deeply frustrated figure. He was frequently waving his arms around after not receiving a pass and ended up dropping deep to collect the ball. He had no touches inside the Chelsea penalty area. Even Petr Cech’s patchy recent form continued.
Antonio Conte was asked on Saturday what Arsenal are missing and, while he would not get specific , he clearly believes their squad is good enough to win the Premier League.
“I think Arsenal has all the potentiality,” he said. “You can see a lot of young players with great quality. Physically very strong, and also a good manager.”
Perhaps more revealing is what Conte actually did when Chelsea suffered a similarly chastening defeat against Arsenal earlier this season. He ripped up the structure and introduced wing-backs.
Wenger has been wedded now to 4-2-3-1 for most of the past decade but, while it does free (and sometimes indulge) an Ozil or Cesc Fabregas, does it suit others? Are we really seeing the best from players like Ramsey, Xhaka and Walcott? And, having acknowledged his team’s susceptibility to the counter-attack on Saturday, doesn’t his system actually contribute to a weakness that has undone them now on countless season-defining occasions?