The retaining of captain Cesc Fabregas and much of the core of the side means Arsenal have an attack to mount a serious title challenge.
So what has pre-season taught us of Arsenal so far? That the Gunners, through all their ability to weave patterns around the opposition, still tend to overcomplicate things despite obvious attempts by the manager to introduce more directness to the play. And that at the back, a sudden inexplicable nervousness is prone to kick in at any time which contrives to throw open a game. But we already knew that about Arsenal. In fact, on the face of it, not much has changed for Arsene Wenger’s side however on the pitch, conscious efforts have been made to better last season’s third place finish and Champions League Quarter-finals exit.
The last friendly fixture – a 6-5 win over Legia Warsaw to commemorate the opening of their new stadium – displayed both sides of Arsenal’s brilliance and frailties but despite the performance, it has been a solid pre-season for the Gunners. Because whatever assessment you make of Arsenal so far, it must be taken into account of the fact that the majority of minutes were played by a limited selection of players – many of them youngsters – with Jack Wilshere and Emmanuel Frimpong starting back-to-back Emirates Cup matches before the trip to Poland. Indeed, Alex Song, Denilson, Abou Diaby and long-term absentee Aaron Ramsey are four midfielders who would have added greater structure to the side while in attack, Nicklas Bendtner is still injured and the two most important players in Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas have just returned to training.
Keeping Fabregas has been the best news of the summer for Arsenal who may be disappointed they haven’t been more active in the transfer window having only added one more defender to the side and lost four to the Bosman rule. It is perhaps the only area which lacks depth (this will be talked about in more detail in part 2 of this article) because in the forward and midfield positions, the Gunners look a frightfully potent side.
Arsene Wenger has made a slight change to his 4-3-3 formation – essentially a continuation of last season’s structure – to add more balance to his side. The left-sided central midfielder is asked to drop deeper alongside the holding midfielder so Arsenal are more guarded in transitions and can press better. In pre-season that partnership was between Wilshere and Frimpong and the pair mightily impressed the manager with their mature tactical understanding in the centre. The most interesting role, however, was played by Samir Nasri and expectedly will be one that is assumed by Fabregas when he returns, in behind the forward.
Nasri, against AC Milan then Rosicky for the first half at Celtic, was given an almost undefined and free role. His purpose in the system is to aid the forward’s in pressing high up the pitch and engage the deep ball-players while being also the playmaking pivot in attack. It’s a role not to atypical to how Mesut Ozil played in the World Cup with Germany as he was found difficult to mark in an ambiguous midfield/forward role. Indeed, Lionel Messi was also given the same freedom in Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3/4-2-4 formation last year as the Argentinian tore apart Arsenal 4-1 at Camp Nou. But perhaps it is Jose Mourinho’s description of the role given to Wesley Sniejder in Inter’s treble triumph which will determine the success of the tactic. “He [Sneijder] comes into a team that is really strong in the tactical point of view,” said Mourinho. “And behind him there is a structure that can give him the freedom he likes to play. So we can say: ‘Is he a midfielder?’ Sometimes I think he is a striker.”
The question is do Arsenal have the structure to allow Fabregas or the ilk to revel? Excuses have been made of the expected consequences of such an expansive style and a team so young but aspects of Fordism such as discipline cannot go amiss. Abou Diaby is often noted that such deficiency but at the age where Wenger feels the team can push on, 23, it will be intriguing to see how his ability to turn defence into attack finally gets together.
It’s not just in the middle where exciting changes are being made. Andrey Arshavin is anticipated to have an even greater impact at wide left with Wenger offering the opportunity more than ever to link up with the forwards. Theo Walcott can put World Cup woes behind him by giving Arsenal a more orthodox and penetrative threat from the right while Carlos Vela seems to have come back from South Africa with more zest. New signing Marouanne Chamakh offers not just a more direct focal point in the attack as van Persie played last season but with the much of the play being shifted out wide, provides an outlet for crosses. His movement, particularly to the right opens up different channels of attack with Walcott moving inside from such moments in pre-season or Rosicky dropping deeper. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas has impressed Wenger in a roaming forward role in pre-season and either of the front three positions is where he is likely to play. With Arsenal, the same caveats always apply but with more variety in attack, this is an Arsenal side which should challenge for more honours this season.
<Figure 1>Arsenal 1-1 AC Milan: Chamakh presses goalkeeper Abbiati with Nasri and Arshavin in close attendance to mark the nearest passing option. The shape is a 4-2-1-3 with Nasri given a free role. Here he presses as the second striker.
<Figure 2> Samir Nasri’s freedom is displayed on a number of times in the draw with Milan as this time he drops into midfield in help press. Indeed, a similar structure can be attained in attacks as Wenger granted Nasri the ability to roam and on many occassions, the Frenchman played closer to Chamakh.