Arsenal’s vain start to their 2016/2017 Premier League campaign indicates that perhaps some things don’t change.
We’re less than a month into the season and many were classifying Arsenal as a team in crisis, which in truth, is extremely harsh. The Gunners have been down this road in recent years, and though their opening fixtures were testing, many believed Arsene Wenger would learn from past mistakes and have his side prepared for the most intriguing Premier League season ever.
Only Granit Xhaka joined last year’s runner-ups at the Emirates prior to the season’s commencement, leaving many to once again question the manager’s ambition. This has developed into classic Wenger: a man not eager to join in on the “splash the cash culture,” but rather prefers to identify the best financial deal for his club.
Where potential contenders Manchester United and Manchester City concluded their summer activity swiftly, Arsenal were still seeking reinforcements that would convince many that they’re capable of materializing a proper title challenge. However, this has been an issue for several managers within the league as well. Antonio Conte has most recently expressed his discontent regarding the current state a player’s valuation.
“At this moment it’s very difficult to buy because, also, if you ask a player of the medium level, a club might ask for £55m. For this reason, it’s a crazy market. It’s very difficult to enter the market with these prices and in this condition,” said Conte.
“I’m not comfortable [paying over the odds]. I don’t like to pay a lot of money. If a player warrants us paying [lots of] money, then it’s right. But for a medium player, it’s right only to pay the right price, not £20m-30m over. That’s not right. The money is not mine, but I don’t like it the same. I don’t find it right.”
But where Conte is joining a new league with the aim of building a new squad, Wenger’s duties are simply straightforward. The Frenchman has maintained the same core squad over the past few seasons, and though many wholeheartedly believe that a world-class striker and centre-back are required to guide the Gunners amongst Europe’s elite, most late transfer window purchases tend to backfire.
Essentially some of those late window transfer purchases have been successful. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil both joined the Gunners for hefty price tags and equally represent the quality Arsenal supporters expect at the Emirates. Wenger’s frugal policy, and the fact that these players were surplus to requirements at Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, may diminishes Arsenal’s transfer achievement, but most Premier League clubs, if not all, have encountered difficulties attracting the best players in the world to move to England.
But apart from Jose Mourinho’s recent spending at Chelsea and Manchester United, Kevin De Bruyne’s move to Manchester City’s represents the sole move by a Premier League club for a top-class player since Robin van Persie moved to Old Trafford. Yet when the opportunity was presented to bolster his striking options, Wenger’s economical view towards player valuation may have proved costly.
Certainly Jamie Vardy’s decision to resign a new contract at Leicester was inexorable, but the manner in which Wenger handled Luis Suarez’s desire to claim silverware was poor. Here was a genuine world-class striker capable of winning games on his own sharing the same ambition as the club supporters and the players, yet Suarez slipped through the cracks and subsequently played a key role in Barcelona’s historic treble winning season afterwards.
Perhaps wages played a factor, and Arsenal may have cooped Sanchez to cope with such failure, but that is a prime example as to why Gunners supporters are enraged. Where Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho sought after targets and quickly closed deals, Arsenal’s deadline day deals for striker Lucas Perez and defender Shkodran Mustafi represents a desperation move.
Perez is a quick, tricky striker that scored more La Liga goals than any other Spaniard last season, whereas Mustafi’s contributions for Germany at Euro 2016 regained the defender’s prominence and will aid a wounded Arsenal back-line. Nonetheless, considering Wenger didn’t initially sought after the duo as potential targets, you can only assume that the signings were mainly to please frustrated fans.
In truth, Wenger did quickly snatch Granit Xhaka off the market, yet the fact that he’s not a world-class star may serve as a defence. Frankly, the days of world-class talent competing in the Premier League during their prime years are gone, as many now turn to England when they’re no longer wanted or can’t break into an elite side.
Arsenal’s current squad was more than capable of winning last year’s title, and can equally challenge this year – even without their deadline day moves. You can’t question any fan base’s ambition regarding their side being strengthened, but Arsenal’s issues rest within the side’s structure rather than the personnel.
Injuries to Gabriel and Per Mertesacker have left Wenger’s centre-back options scarce, and while neither Calum Chambers nor Rob Holding represent a long-term competent partner for Laurent Koscielny, they could’ve sufficed until the former returns. Still, Mustafi provides additional quality to the back-line, but he’s more of a proactive defender than a natural ball-player, which simply doesn’t offer the correct balance at the back – the competition with a returning Gabriel could prove beneficial, though.
Likewise, for all of the squabble regarding Olivier Giroud’s form, the Frenchman still remains integral to the Arsenal attack. Giroud’s holdup and link up play invites midfielder runners forward and drags defenders out of position, while his aerial presence around the box is unmatched. Surely Giroud’s finishing isn’t on the level of the league’s elite forwards like Sergio Aguero or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but he still guarantees you 10-15 Premier League goals per season.
Perez, however, doesn’t appear to be the player capable of significantly changing Arsenal’s fortunes upfront nor cementing a permanent place in the XI. Danny Welbeck’s injuries have hampered Wenger’s options upfront, as the England international’s pace stretches back-lines, whilst offering a divergent direct threat. A Welbeck-Giroud partnership, or the ability to summon the former off the bench is promising, yet Arsenal have coped well without Welbeck available.
“He’s [Perez] not only a goalscorer, he’s a guy who combines well with partners, who can give a final ball and makes good runs,” Wenger told .
“He’s got a good eye for goal and had an outstanding season last year.”
While the traditional title challengers have improved their squad and manager, the latter should be the biggest fear surrounding Arsenal’s title and top four challenge. Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola have already offered the required signs of improvement regarding their sides’ defensive shape along with their pressing scheme, whereas Jose Mourinho has arguably inherited the strongest and already proved successful in this competition.
Wenger must follow suit, which could explain the signing of Xhaka: a great passer of the ball that’s also possesses a physical side to his came by breaking into tackles to win possession throughout midfield. Arsenal’s overall squad can dispatch of inferior opposition with ease, but they tend to drop points against the top half of the tables – tactically astute sides that emphasize the importance of defensive structure yet equally possess a shrewd attacking plan.
Although Wenger’s men recorded four of a possible nine points to start the season, it’s still premature to decipher whether they’ve improved in this phase either. Their pressing nullified Liverpool’s threat in the first half of opening weekend, but fatigue forced them to sit back in the second, which enabled Liverpool’s nifty attackers to bypass the midfield and exploit a makeshift back-line.
The following week, Xhaka’s debut and the return of Laurent Koscielny witnessed a stark improvement, as the latter’s pace proved pivotal in preventing Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy from scoring. Last year, Arsenal defeated Leicester in both encounters, and though the Gunners are stylistically suited to take on the champions, their ability to limit counter-attacks shouldn’t be overlooked.
Although Watford clearly lack a calculated attacking ploy, Arsenal from a defensive aspect: Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were disciplined in wide areas, Mesut Ozil stuck tight to Valon Behrami, while Xhaka’s ball-winning skills ensured the Gunners maintained control of central areas. Alexis continuously drifted towards the left flank to exploit Younes Kaboul’s lack of pace, while the return of Ozil offered Arsenal the precise passing and creativity the Gunners lacked in previous matches.
On the other hand, there’s no doubt the Gunners can “win ugly,” the worry lies in Wenger providing consistency to his side’s reactive performances. For instance, last season Arsenal bypassed United’s sluggish pressing, with Ozil serving as chief creator between the lines – space behind Bastian Schweinsteiger – Alexis dominating Mateo Darmian from the left, and Theo Walcott breaking forward in transition.
A similar home win against European giants, Bayern Munich, offered optimism. The Gunner’s remained narrow and compact out of possession to thwart Bayern’s attempt to dominate the centre of the pitch, and broke forward quickly via Ozil combining with wide players to create overloads on the flanks. But Arsenal’s inability to consistently defend in this manner has developed into an extremely frustrating dilemma.
Nevertheless, its still too early to set Arsenal’s fate. With so many key players unavailable it only appears logical that results will improve. Ultimately this all rests on Wenger – regardless if late signings completed ahead of the window’s conclusion, it appears anything less than a title triumph would be deemed a failure. In what could be a defining season for the future of Arsenal Football Club, minor modifications regarding Arsenal’s work-rate out of possession and overall structure could provide a fairy-tale.
Wenger practically has two players for every position, and various options to adjust to several threats, but simply can’t seem to identify a competent manner to defend that provides consistent results. Its evident Arsenal can compete, and beat the best teams in the world, but the lack of preparation and direction has been their downfall over the years, thus providing yearly stagnation and a potential decline as others evolve.
Where other clubs were forced to spend excessive transfer fees to return to their expected status, Wenger simply has to grasp the evolution of the modern-game and channel the inner pragmatism that separates the fine margins between champion and runner-up.
Against some of the best coaches of our generation Wenger’s Arsenal faces an arduous battle between his footballing beliefs and success, and how he fares will certainly determine the North London club and Frenchman’s future at the Emirates.