Tuesday 21 November 2017

Wenger's vow to 'go for it' highlights perennial problems

Arsene Wenger: Go out swinging. Photo credit: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Arsene Wenger: Go out swinging. Photo credit: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Jeremy Wilson

The most powerful argument against Arsene Wenger has never concerned his overall League record (never worse and often better than fourth, with the fourth largest budget) but how his team repeatedly jar against a seemingly impenetrable ceiling on the biggest occasions.

This season has been textbook so far in following that pattern but, ahead of a chance at Anfield this evening to go some way to arresting that maddening cycle, Wenger delivered a surprising explanation.

Conventional wisdom has it that Wenger's Arsenal are too gung-ho and, in the words once of Gary Neville, either "naive or arrogant" in not modifying their approach towards more physical resilience.

Wenger's analysis of the situation is rather different and, if this is to be his last season at the club, he clearly intends to go out swinging with no compromise on his football philosophy.

His team might have shipped eight goals in recent away games against Chelsea and then Bayern Munich but, asked yesterday whether he would ever urge his players to "park the bus", Wenger replied with a firm "no". He then instead argued that his team had actually lacked aggression and should have been more expressive against the big teams.

"We lost at Everton and Manchester City after being 1-0 up and basically it is because maybe we were not in the proactive position after we were 1-0 up; we were too passive," said Wenger.

"We didn't look like we played with enough freedom. What is most important for me now is the attitude to just go for it. Go and take. You have to make things happen. It is always a mindset."

It is a bold conclusion, especially ahead of a series of matches that will decide whether Wenger remains Arsenal manager next season. Wenger thinks that being passive is typically linked to lacking self-belief and there was no attempt yesterday to dispute those facts which point to a psychological barrier now against the best teams.

While Liverpool have been at their most formidable against the most dangerous opponents, Arsenal would be bottom of a mini-league table this season of games between the top six clubs. Their only win was the 3-0 blitzing of Chelsea that persuaded Antonio Conte to completely reorganise his formation.

Arsenal captain Laurent Koscielny has also referred to a "mental problem" and, having previously been more dismissive of that theory, Wenger thinks now that the best way to tackle the issue is to make the sure players are conscious of what he wants.

"We want to be defensively solid; but you also want to have an attitude and desire to score goals," he said.

Wenger talks often of wanting that defensive solidity but the question is whether he can set up his team tactically to deliver that.

Arsenal conceded four against Liverpool on the first day of the season and similarly chastening matches have been a frequent feature of their recent history. There is a suspicion that Wenger has used the rare luxury of a near two-week break to work on a tweak to their formation.

Wenger was vague about Mesut Ozil's availability amid recent sickness and, for difficult away matches, there must now be a temptation either to start him on the left of a 4-3-3 formation or even leave him on the bench.

Danny Welbeck has twice played for theU-23s since the FA Cup match against Sutton United and his energy could well be used on the flanks today.

Record signing Ozil has contributed only four Premier League assists this season - compared to his 19 last year - and Wenger pinpointed how he has struggled in the absence of Santi Cazorla. The stats are stark. When Cazorla has started over the past four seasons against the rest of the league's 'big six', Arsenal have won 11, drawn six and lost six. In the 18 matches when he has not been there, they have won only twice.

"He suffered a lot from the loss of Cazorla because Cazorla, in deep midfield, can get out of pressure," said Wenger. "His numbers dropped since we had less collective possession in deep midfield."

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