Every season, Arsene Wenger has a hard time convincing the media; and therefore the fans, that things at Arsenal have changed. The Gunners have not won the title in 12 years and until they do, there will always be a proportion of the footballing public who remain sceptical. The dominant culture in English football worships all things new, and Arsenal simply aren’t that interesting a story to many people. Their views on Wenger, his methods and his team are firmly established and no amount of evidence to the contrary is going to change them. Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp are the shiny new ornaments on the shelf; great sources of intrigue and fascination. People think they have Wenger pretty much sussed however, and do not always approach Arsenal with an open mind.
If they did so, even the harshest critics would have to admit that there has been a good deal of change in Arsenal’s team this season. Though Wenger experimented with a similar formula at the beginning of last season, he has consistently opted for a pacy and mobile front three led by Alexis Sanchez this term. This is a radical departure from having Olivier Giroud as your offensive fulcrum. At the back, a new centre-back pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi is still fermenting. In the same way that Alexis and Giroud are diametrically opposed, Mustafi’s front-footed, aggressive style is a serious contrast to the more serene and zonal method of Per Mertesacker. With Granit Xhaka still to be fully introduced, there could also be a fresh partnership in central midfield. That is a major realignment of the team’s spine.
It is the receding roles of Mertesacker and Giroud that are most interesting. The pair have acted like stabilisers on Arsenal’s bicycle during their time at the club. Stabilisers are useful if you are in danger of falling off, but you’re not going to win many races with them attached. Mertesacker and Giroud arrived at the club when Arsenal were; in footballing terms, close to falling off the bike.
The German defender arrived during the trolley-dash that followed the Gunners’ 8-2 defeat against Manchester United in August 2011, at the close of a summer that saw Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri depart. Olivier Giroud arrived the following summer during a window in which Robin van Persie would leave for United. In 2011-12 and 2012-13, Wenger’s side just about kept their place in the top four, pipping rivals Spurs with a late run in both seasons. It was a close shave on both occasions, and Arsenal’s football was agricultural.
This was the most tumultuous period of Wenger’s tenure, and Gooners should be thankful for the role Mertesacker and Giroud played in steadying the ship. Mertesacker is an exemplary defender and fantastic character; respected in the dressing room and popular among the fans. He and Koscielny formed Arsenal’s best centre-back partnership since the move to the Emirates. The fact he arrived so late in an incoherent transfer window has always marred people’s perception of him, somewhat unfairly.
Giroud has proved more divisive, but for £13 million, must surely be one of the best ‘pound-for-pound’ performers in the division. The Frenchman has scored 82 goals in 142 starts for the club. He has been like a comfort blanket for Wenger, a player he could always return to if the chips were down. Both played their part in back-to-back FA Cup triumphs.
However, they were both players who placed restrictions on how Arsenal could play. Due to Mertesacker’s lack of pace, Wenger could never fully commit to a pressing game because of the higher defensive line this entails. The presence of an ageing Mikel Arteta at the base of his midfield also put this tactic firmly out of bounds for the most part.
This term, Arsenal are making a concerted effort to pressurise teams in their defensive third. In part, this is an attacking weapon. The Gunners have struggled for goals in recent seasons and making better use of transitions and creating chances from turnovers will be a step to improve this. It may not be the case that Wenger has experience any kind of Damascene epiphany. Rather, it is a question of expedience; Arsenal have a number of mobile, front-footed players so pressing high suits them.
At the top end of the pitch, the evolution away from Giroud is not really a shock. A manager that had George Weah, Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie at the point of his attack does not suddenly play with a target man out of choice. Giroud has remained a constant because other options have been too flighty; Lukas Podolski was too static, Theo Walcott too ephemeral and Danny Welbeck ravaged by injury. Alexis was needed out wide, but the silky talents of Alex Iwobi and a born-again version of Walcott have changed this.
Wenger wants to play a game passed on quick passing combinations, positional freedom and speed of movement. He has always wanted this. Walcott was picked ahead of Giroud for the 2015 FA Cup Final; heck, even Yaya Sanogo was picked for a Champions League game against Bayern Munich. There is no need to speculate, because the man himself has said just this:
“What has happened is in the last 10 years, strikers have become quicker and quicker.
“What happened then? The defence responded by creating defenders who are quicker and quicker. So now to put in strikers who are slow, you have really a big problem.”
“We played with style, with pace, with movement – and that’s the kind of football we want to play.”
For all his undoubted virtues, Giroud does not quite fit in with that brand of football. If he plays, Arsenal are forced to play to his strengths. If they play to his strengths, the superlative attributes of Mesut Özil and particularly those of Alexis Sanchez are tempered somewhat. If you play to the strengths of those two, then Giroud looks like a fish out of water and there is not much point in playing him. It is a catch-22, but one in which leaving out Giroud and trying to coax a bit extra from Özil and Sanchez seemed the best solution.
Mertesacker and Giroud have been real stalwarts for Arsenal, but there was always a sense that their presence capped Arsenal’s performance at a certain level; that the team had a ‘ceiling’. The shift away from the pair towards a high pressing game with a pacy front line raises Arsenal’s ceiling. This does not mean they are certain of reaching that ceiling; pressing high brings its own risks, and Arsenal’s front three might not have its current balance should injuries occur. However, there is now hope that the final step, moving from a top four side that wins cups to a team that wins championships, could be realised.
Featured image: All rights reserved by Emrah Partal