Going into the new season I questioned whether unpredictability in the final third would be our biggest weapon.
It was a phenomenon provoked by the sale of Robin van Persie and purchase of three very different kinds of attacking players; the nimble, technical Santi Cazorla, the direct, explosive Lukas Podolski and the powerful, hard-working Olivier Giroud. But more than that: it was the idea that if we — and by we I mean Arsene Wenger and his squad — didn’t know how they would all fit together, then how on earth would our opponents?
Wenger’s puzzle has been in a state of flux, as has the impact of his variety of combinations. After two goalless draws to begin the season and the inevitable ‘missing Robin van Persie’ conclusions, the positive impacts of our unpredictability began to reap benefits as the goals flew in.
Gervinho’s role as the focal point of our attack took many by surprise, particularly because pre-season questions focused on whether it would be Podolski or Giroud to play centrally. He is a hit and miss player, not a natural finisher by any stretch, but three league goals and two in Europe suggested opposition defenders were unsure of how to handle a player who did not play, in any sense of the word, a central role last season.
Cazorla’s free role
Likewise, Santi Cazorla’s deployment so close to the central striker — be it Gervinho or, more recently, Giroud — was not foreseen by many. The Spaniard has been given a free role from Day One at Arsenal, a role afforded to him by Mikel Arteta’s shift to a more defensive position, and the results were initially spectactular. Arteta was a statistician’s dream, Cazorla wreaked havoc throughout the final third and Podolski, Gervinho and Giroud have all benefited as a result of the Spanish duo’s creativity.
The success of our attacking football was characterised by excellent transitions, shifting the ball expertly from defence to attack through slick passing football and willing runs into the box from our wingers. Our central defenders as well as Arteta and Cazorla, have been vital to this style of football and for the first two months, even in defeat to Chelsea at the Emirates, our counter-attacking football was terrific.
But since the excellent comeback victory over West Ham, a game which showcased everything good about our attacking football — as well, unfortunately, as everything flakey about our defending — things have changed. The transitions have been slower, the creativity in the final third has been lacking and we’ve looked as poor an attacking force since the Andrey Arshavin was forced to play as a central striker.
Norwich was an embarrassing day out, Schalke a real shock to the system and the fact that the 1-0 victory over QPR was achieved so late on, after another stressful, disjointed 90 minutes of attacking football, took much of the shine off a valuable victory that momentarily moved the club into the top four.
Excuses could be made that the international break has knocked us out of our stride but I feel it is more a matter of our unpredictability in attack. We had it, we’ve now lost it and the results have been difficult to accept. Cazorla has looked tired, Podolski has struggled to explode and Giroud plods on as if still searching for his first goal for the club. Other individuals could be similarly criticised but the truth is it is more a matter of team ethic.
So what now? How do we get our momentum back?
Imposing our style
In my humble opinion the key to overcoming our lack of unpredictability — a situation caused by the novelty of our new forward structure wearing off and teams now beginning understanding how to stop us — is to show more character and impose our new playing style more confidently.
Yes, we are a team that likes to keep possession. Under Arsene Wenger we always will be. But equally important is our new-found value in counter-attacking effectively.
As mentioned earlier, Cazorla is deployed so high up the pitch to exploit opposition defenders as soon as possible. That means speedy transitions are a must and the moment a player like Mertesacker or André Santos wins a tackle in defence, he must be looking to move the ball forward quickly for Arteta or Cazorla to make the most of.
Often such players are too ponderous or to be more frank, mentally lazy, to do so. It is a habit that tends to lead to a lot of possession but very few attempts on goal. Against Norwich and Schalke, for example, we recorded just two shots on target. Simply not good enough, considering we bossed possession in both games. This needs to change.
Better without the ball?
There is a growing feeling that this Arsenal side are perhaps more effective when they have less possession. Having less of the ball naturally forces a team to be more efficient and precious with resources at their disposal, and such an effect was in evidence early on against Liverpool and also against Chelsea, where only poor set-piece defending prevented us from a more positive result.
Less possession provides a more organic sort of football match, once that encourages the opposing team to attack more freely and often opening up spaces for us to exploit at the back. But to rely on other sides to attack us is naive: we must be better than that.
What is central to solving our current lack of momentum is that we work through these growing pains and force out the style that Wenger wants our team to play. Every good side has periods during a season when the football does not flow and we are currently in the middle of one of those. There is hope though: the win at QPR, as well as the returns of Bacary Sagna and Jack Wilshere, were cause for optimism. Szczesny’s inevitable return will be provide another boon.
Confidence and momentum are things that can be attained or lost quickly and there is no better way to snap us out of our current funk with a big performance against Manchester United at Old Trafford. An intriguing weekend awaits.
Perhaps a win on the Shoot or Soccer Safari slot games from Ladbrokes, which are available to play here, could give Arsenal the boost in confidence they need before heading to Old Trafford?