The unfortunate postponement of St. Totteringham’s Day until further notice is very much a reality, albeit a frustrating one. This is not me having a go at Spurs, by the way. They were very good last weekend, and have been for the clear majority of the season. Stretch it back to last season, and bar their catastrophic collapse at the tail end of the campaign, they were better than us then too.
I am not eluding to a power shift, though, because that notion is utter madness. I could bang on about history and how we stole Sol Campbell, won the league at White Hart Lane on two occasions, and whatever other fact I could rattle off to make myself feel better, but what is the point. North London is still very much red, but currently, the better team is in white, and there is no use denying the body of evidence that supports that fact.
Our 2-0 defeat up the road was a frustrating one for multiple reasons. We were outplayed for seventy-five minutes, and that is aggravating in of itself. But the bigger annoyance comes via the team selection. Truthfully, I genuinely feel we lost that match before kick-off, on the tactics board.
This isn’t necessary an indictment of us going with three at the back – though I do not drink the Kool-Aid that Arsene Wenger has been pondering it for a while – but it certainly is a call for the understanding that, if we are to continue down this path, that we need to do it the right way. At Spurs, we didn’t.
When we slugged out results away at Middlesbrough, against Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final, and then again at home to Leicester, the evidence seemed to have been there that maybe there could be something in this.
You can probably make that same case for any tactical deployment, that if it works a couple times, then maybe it is worth exploring further. The issue with tactics, and the shape you plan to stick to, is that if you do not feature the right players with the right instructions, the wheels will immediately fall off the bus, no matter what formation you use. This was very much the case at the weekend.
While it’s easy to make the statement that the players didn’t seem up for the fight, like other Arsenal sides have been in the past, it goes far beyond passion and desire; though I am not refuting its importance. Our issues against Spurs were completely down to our shape (well, a lack thereof, really), and the players chosen for the job on the day.
Lately we seem to demand less of the ball against sides of better quality (both City and Spurs had more possession) and have been slightly shifted to trying to hit these teams on the counter a bit more, at least in theory. With that in mind, you immediately should call into question why Olivier Giroud was given the nod at center forward.
A target man by trade, who thrives on playing with his back to goal and bringing others into play, his strengths are quite literally the exact opposite of what you want from your forward if you do not have the lion’s share of the possession. That is not to say that center forwards cannot play in a more counter-based system, but when your option through the middle lacks pace of any notoriety, he’s certainly not the best option.
Considering that Spurs arguably have the best center back pairing in the Premier League in Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, both of whom excel in the air, at man-marking and zonally, while having a bit of pace, a better option would have been Danny Welbeck. With pace of his own to burn, good technical ability, and strength both in the air and when holding up play, Welbeck would have been a different animal for the Belgian duo to handle, and probably would have left The Lane with a headache or two.
The result was Giroud being invisible for the entirety of his personal outing, apart from one tame effort shot right at Hugo Lloris in the second half.
Another major question, at least for me, was the inclusion of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right as a wing back-come- right midfielder. He did play quite well in the same role against City at Wembley it must be said, but my issues are a bit more far reaching. It’s been put on record, numerous times, that Arsene views him as a central player moving forward in his development; so why not actually play him through the middle? You do not just develop as a player by sheer magic or force or will, you do so with a combination of training, and actual time on the pitch in match situations.
Ox was quite poor against Spurs, and though he tried to put in somewhat of a shift, his inability to be consistent in tracking back or marking allowed the tricky Son Heung-Min, and second-choice left back Ben Davies to routinely find joy down our right-hand side. Though his form has inexplicably dipped, whether through injury, his ridiculous hair catastrophe’s, or multiple mental lapses, surely Hector Bellerin would have been a more suitable option on the right given the opposition.
Additional questions can be asked on the inclusions of Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, and the dropping of Rob Holding to the bench.
Make no mistake about, my admiration for the bug-eyed creative genius, but Ozil is very much a player who doesn’t suit us any longer; maybe even the current footballing landscape overall. No one can speak against his playmaking abilities or his vision, and perhaps only a certain little Spaniard can be mentioned in the same conversation, but it’s his lack of versatility that has become a massive weakness for both him and us.
Very much a player who needs to be the focal point of the attack, with intelligent runners around him, the form he showed for Real Madrid and Werder Bremen before them was largely due to the brand of football on offer in those sides. Because number 10’s are now shifting to the player-types of Kevin De Bruyne, Philippe Coutinho, and David Silva, more mobile and more direct creative players, Ozil being shoved into a role of being one of two central attacking players who were supposed to make runs off Giroud borders on criminal. It also made it painfully obvious that if he’s not used in a traditional way, he goes missing more than he already has this season. Why not play Alex Iwobi in that role; a player who is adept (at least more so than Ozil) at playing off a shoulder or making quick runs through channels, while also having the pace and mobility to offer another option going forward.
As for Ramsey, I’m done with him, and his performance against Spurs was another notch on the post of why he needs to be let go in the summer. He may have had all the promise in the world when we beat out Sir Alex for his signature, and his one season of note stands as what we all were hoping we’d get every season, but he’s not progressed and developed as well as we have all hoped. His horror injury deserves mention, certainly, but for a player who is lauded for his engine, his creative ability in his own right, and a goal scoring touch that has since gone missing, he leaves us painfully exposed centrally when he’s in midfield.
Thinking back on it, perhaps it is why the Ramsey on the right experiment existed at all in the past. His performance can be summed up in one simple fact; that Victor *bleeping* Wanyama (to quote someone I know) “ran through our midfield like Zinedine Zidane”, often charging through the channel vacated by Ramsey, sums up his contributions on the day. It was another glaring example of why we need a proper holding player to be brought in during the summer window (for the last time, Granit Xhaka is not a holding midfielder), or why changing the duties handed to Francis Coquelin, or indeed Mohammed Elneny, has hurt us considerably through the middle.
And finally, Rob Holding. Quite how he was dropped to the bench after the recent performances he has put in, is baffling. For me, there were two options here. Either redeploy Nacho Monreal in place of Kieran Gibbs (Monreal is better/more responsible at both going forward, and on the defensive side of the ball) and slot holding into the back three with Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel, or, bin Gabriel and replace him with Holding.
Holding, Koscielny, and Gabriel performed well as a trio at the back against City, allowing Monreal to be in a far more comfortable role, so why change something that worked? Hindsight, as always, is 20/20 however, and the horrific display put on by Gabriel gave his many detractors further evidence to the fact that he should never be starting for the club; perhaps never purchased in the first place. Holding, surely, would have been a bit more solid in place of the Brazilian, and even if he didn’t put in a top-class performance, I’d put good money on him not foolishly swinging his leg in the director of Harry Kane, or giving the ball away so freely to Spurs that nearly saw our rivals find the back of the net in the first half.
He may be young, he may be (hopefully) developing, and yes maybe there was concern that fielding him in such a high-pressure match as the likes of this could potentially cause more harm than good if he didn’t put in a good performance, but the way he handled himself against a tough test against Pep Guardiola’s men suggests he was ready for Mauricio Pochettino’s troops. When you have a good player on your hands, even if they’re young, you play them, and it’s the correct response for so many supporters to question why he was dropped.
Regardless of what line you want to take post-NLD, things are not in a healthy state at the club. Yes, we all know the issues/drama going on at board level, and with the manager and his contract (and the contracts of Alexis and Ozil), but down on the pitch, things are in chaos, and have been for quite a while now.
If we are to seriously consider three at the back as a viable tactical deployment moving forward, our only chance of it working efficiently and effectively is to give it a legitimate chance of working from a personnel standpoint. The last thing we need is more square pegs in round holes, especially with our run-in consisting of United, Stoke, Soton, and Everton. If this was a panic decision by the manager, then the sooner we bin it the better. Either way, until we start making the right choices on the tactics board, more performances like this will occur, and our issues will be far more concerning other than a “changing of the guard” in the north of London.
Until next time, COYG.
Drew is one of our #ABW Regular Columnists and can be found on Twitter as @AFCBvB1410. When not writing for us, he also writes for Outside of the Boot and FutbollPulse, and he’s a regular hipster on the Football Hipsters Podcast.
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