Begrudgingly, Arséne Wenger may have to accept progress has been made despite facing defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. Arsenal didn’t play like second-best but the difference in confidence was evident between the two sides; Tottenham with a ruthless ambition about their forward play and Arsenal, nervy and twitchy around the box. When Spurs took the lead, there was an uncertainty about Arsenal’s attacking play. Both their most direct players – and both carrying knocks before the game – were withdrawn, making you wonder why they both started.
In a previous era, both Yossi Benayoun and Andrey Arshavin might have expected to start but by the time they entered the field, it was felt there was little time for a patient approach. In the end, Per Mertesacker was thrown in as an auxiliary striker to try and save the game. If it’s not an indication of the sign of the times, that Arsenal desperately want to add to their trophy drought thus adjusting part of their game, it may be that they are still trying to find their identity.
With their creative heartbeat ripped out when Cesc Fábregas departed in the summer, Aaron Ramsey has had to take a central role. In the middle of a change in formation – which has subsequently reverted back to a 4-2-3-1 – injuries and a number of fresh faces, he has had to carry the burden of creativity the greatest. Against Tottenham, Ramsey looked better, attempting inject some penetration and urgency to Arsenal’s attack. Ultimately, it proved to be errant as he committed more than his usual amount of stray passes and one in particular proving to be fatal, as his pass out to touch essentially started Tottenham’s winner. But his attempts to bring purpose to Arsenal’s play must be commended because this side still looks like one which is still trying to discover what they are; what avenues they will exploit and at what tempo they will do so.
It’s perhaps significant that Arsenal’s last three games have seen goals come when the objective is fresh in their minds (discounting Shrewsbury). Against Olympiacos, The Gunners struck early while against Bolton and here at Tottenham, they scored first after the break. Aaron Ramsey, in particular, seems to benefit from that extra direction (which makes it more apparent the need for more influential figures on the pitch) because in both games, he was pushed instructed closer to Robin van Persie and the impact was instant. (Ramsey’s impact after the manager’s words reminds me of the introduction of Lucas Leiva for the captain, Steven Gerrard in a Merseyside derby. Benitez took off his iconic captain because he felt his instructions to calm the game down can be transmitted better to someone close to him rather than in the heat of the battle).
Robin van Persie’s effectiveness has also suffered as Arsenal attempt Arsenal to search their soul. He was so dynamic last season because the side’s keep-ball suddenly allowed him to spring into a bit of space or release someone behind but with Arsenal deploying two wingers in the classical sense, he has had to play more orthodoxly. Playing close to the defender isn’t typically his game nor is waiting patiently for a cross but he says he’s had to adjust. On the other hand, stretching play, as Gervinho and Theo Walcott did even if they were passive, offered Arsenal’s more angles to pass the ball which they did well. However, they also looked good coming in off the flanks, attempting a couple of good efforts, which poses the thought why Benayoun or even Oxlade-Chamberlain couldn’t have started. It’s easy to look back retrospectively I guess.
Arséne Wenger’s primary tactic was to regain control of the North London derby, which in recent seasons has somewhat been wrestled away from them, in terms of possession and he got that right on Sunday. Francis Coquelin and Mikel Arteta gave positional security as well as technical although the lack of a creative figure to aid Ramsey hurt the team. Wenger indicated before the game that was to be the main way of stopping Tottenham from exploiting from transitions, saying: “It’s down to our quality and to how well we defend. And even better, how much we will have the ball.” However, their pain was as much self-inflicted as it was dealt by their opponents because the two goals they conceded came from the restart i.e two throw-ins. Spurs took advantage from Arsenal’s lapse of concentration and relative meekness when pressing (although, to be fair, it’s getting better) to score twice.
In Wenger’s attempts to make Arsenal more dynamic, he’s willing to let the three forwards stay up the pitch and that means behind them, there are three midfielders who mark zonaly and a back four who want to pick up their men. Bearing that in mind, perhaps it was inevitable that Rafael van der Vaart was to add to his his three goals in two derbies. For his goal, he dragged Kieran Gibbs inside with his movement which then opens up space for the ball to be switched out to the vacant right-hand side. By moving infield, van der Vaart is passed on by Gibbs to the midfielders to make – who are already overwhelmed for space – and the Dutchman is thus allowed to run into the box unmarked. There were arguments that Bakary Sagna could have done more to stope the run but he was too occupied by a man – Gareth Bale – highlighting how difficult to pick up (and deadly) intelligent running can be. Again, my assertions that Ramsey played well was because he tried to bring that threat to Arsenal and as well as getting the goal, got into a couple of promising positions in the box.
<Figure 1>I stand alone: Aaron Ramsey may have been criticised for a few misplaced passes but he tried to instill into the side, some urgency. His passing was higher up compared to against Bolton and linked more with the wide forwards.
As Wenger said afterwards, it was a case of “two steps forward and one step back”. The side showed progress although more than ever, Arsenal’s season may depend on how much the “cult of the coach” can inspire his side. As Barney Ronay writes in the 25th Anniversary issue of When Saturday Comes magazine; “Football has changed and so have footballers. The game is now a more regularised affair. At a certain level – below the very best and above the second rate – players are relatively indistinguishable in terms of athleticism and basic skills. And so football has become more chess-like, more a matter of the location and exploitation of momentary weakness.” This has elevated the primacy of the manager in the modern game and Wenger must inspire his players accordingly. But if football is also becoming more regularised and technique and conditioning reaching a plateau, perhaps it’s the mind that can really elevate a team. In that respects, it’s no wonder the best team at the moment is Barcelona, using each other as extensions of the mind to create an all-dominating team. Next to them is Manchester United, a side seemingly un-fazed by the mental hurdles that face them even when the side’s average age has plummeted this season. “We have yet to tap the full potential of the mental aspect of the game,” says Louis van Gaal when asked by Champions Magazine, how football could change over the next decade. “Mental preparations, visualisation and imagination offer the best chance for change.”
Arsenal must persist with this technical approach; it’s their defence as much it is their attack. Indeed, they have to. If Wenger commits to a passing game, steps must be ensured to make it better each season and not fixate disproportionately on other trivial matters. Gervinho speaks about having to adapt to the “Arsenal way” if he is to succeed at the club and at times in the system he has looked like an interloper; an incorrigible maverick. It’s not Arsenal’s style playing two wingers – or at least, they still don’t know if they can play a way that can afford them to. Arsenal dominated by possession, and that, despite the defeat, Wenger must cling onto as a sign of progress.
With competition in the league becoming more intense and the recent financial results confirming the need to qualify for Europe, Arsenal’s position in the Champions League is in danger of compromise. We scorn to use the word “crisis” but if it’s not an identity crisis, Wenger must stop it becoming an existential one.