“Eight years without silverware, that’s failure. He is a specialist in failure.”
In February 2014, the war of words between Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger reached its apex. D-day. Though this was more than a conceited slur. More than infantile bickering. This was the serial champion putting the perennial runner-up in his place. This was true, supported by evidence and timeworn tradition. From cup-final breakdowns to mid-March collapses, time and time again Arsenal found new ways to lose. New ways to fail.
A fact evidenced, rather typically, in a 6-0 slaughtering at Stamford Bridge just 36 days later. Wenger’s nadir; a disastrous commemoration of his 1000th game in the scalding Gunners’ hotseat. For all the success of his early era, this was sadly indicative of the modern-day Arsenal. 5-1 at Anfield. 6-3 at the Etihad. 8-2 at Old Trafford a few seasons prior. This was no overnight affliction, more a recurring, debilitating ailment; a running punch line. Last season only fueled the fire, with the Gunners topping the table for 128 days before the traditional plummet. Even the FA Cup triumph, nine years in the making, failed to salvage another year of ‘what if’s’ and ‘what happened’.
A year on, fortunes, if not perceptions, have changed. Arsenal are proudly rejoicing successive cup victories while finishing on the verge of their highest league finish in ten years. The much-publicised trophy doubt a forgotten shadow, Arsenal are once again squinting in the glare of silverware. The campaign, on reflection, represents another annual improvement. Almost, almost, verging on success. Overshadowed by Chelsea’s relentless winning machine, by Manchester United’s transition, by Liverpool’s inconsistency, by City’s demise, Arsenal plugged along quietly, restoring a dynasty brick by brick. The walls aren’t watertight but the foundations are in place. The tide is turning. Wheels are in motion. A return to their early-noughties glory appears a palpable possibility. For that, Wenger deserves acclaim.
Balanced and Buoyant
Square pegs; round holes. Mikel Arteta in defensive midfield. Mesut Ozil out wide. Wenger is frequently the victim of his own purist endeavour. A playmaker here, an inverted winger there, his demand for incisive interplay, his established distaste for pragmatism, has often been left unravelled by cannier, physical foes. Stoke, Chelsea and Manchester United have prolifically exploited Arsenal’s one-paced, rather fragile engine.
However, Arsenal hinted at a new-found solidity in 2015. Since that capitulation at Southampton on January 1, they won 13 from 18 in the league. Despite late season jitters, including blanks against Chelsea, Swansea and Sunderland, the year suggests promise. Facilitated by a balanced, interchangeable midfield unit.
Coquelin, forgotten man to undisputed starter, is crucial. The defensive shield of Arteta and Jack Wilshere offers skill, yes, but little protection to an oft overswamped defence. However, the dynamic Frenchman plugs the gaps innately. A terrier-like ankle biter. The Gunners’ guard dog. His now notorious route to the first-team was hardly conventional, but he’s now as much a key figure as Alexis Sanchez or Olivier Giroud. Starring in impressive victories against City and Liverpool, Coquelin’s tactical awareness and diligent tenacity provides the consistent stranglehold absent since Gilberto Silva’s departure in 2008.
The Frenchman’s most positive impact, however, is that his tenacious presence allowed Santi Cazorla to thrive in a central role. Converted from an inverted wideman into a deep-lying playmaker, his ability to penetrate enemy lines, outnumber opponents and link play around the opposition penalty area inspired Arsenal’s fine form. Evidenced supremely in their cup final battering of Aston Villa, Cazorla thrives with freedom.
Plus, the obstinate drive, the predictable unpredictability of Sanchez, coupled with Giroud’s innate hold-up play, enabled Ozil to flourish in his favoured playmaker position. Potential unlocked, he is the heartbeat of a healthy midfield, arguably the Man of the Match as the Gunners shot down Villa at Wembley. Giroud himself has starred, upping his game to the brink of top class. Complemented by the array of buzzing playmakers, the Frenchman has thrived as a focal point while Danny Welbeck and resurgent Theo Walcott offer the direct darts and relentless positivity previously lacking from Arsenal’s often over-playing attack.
A cacophony of individuals crafted into a magnanimous ecosystem. Previously, Wenger has been condemned for over-familiarity. Too many playmakers spoil the broth. However, this new-found equilibrium provides the base for Arsenal’s revival. Coquelin’s discipline, Cazorla’s energy, Sanchez’ directness and Ozil’s subtlety. Complimenting each other with innate ease, Arsenal are unpredictable again. Dominant yet direct. Refined yet rambunctious. A fusion of their late nineties steel with a modern-day agility.
A Case for the Defence
In stark contrast to the haphazard organisation of recent years, Arsenal possessed the third best defensive record in the Premier League. Evidently, Wenger has taken steps to address his much-publicised Achilles heel.
Wojciech Szczesny, literally and metaphorically, had dropped the ball. On-field blunders coupled with off-field controversy had Szczesny facing a firing squad. Now, with the Pole consigned to the bunker, Arsenal appear more secure, more watertight in the safe hands of David Ospina. Reliable and quick, the Colombian divides opinion. A mistake here, a fumble there, but his performances have been widely impressive.
Furthermore, the signings of Callum Chambers and Gabriel Paulista offer increased physicality. Previously, a lightweight defence led to an overbalanced, top-heavy unit. However, Chambers’ versatility offers increased protection while Gabriel, a proactive, positionally-aware defender, perfectly counterbalances an often-uneven high line. Furthermore, the extraordinary emergence of Hector Bellerin wiped the long-running Bacary Sagna saga from memory while Laurent Koscielny’s innate awareness knits together a stable, cognitive backline. Nacho Monreal, too, has impressed with his positional sense and attacking thrust, a thorn in Villa’s right side at Wembley.
Arsenal’s multi-faceted forward line dominates the back page but, with just 33 goals conceded, their improving defence provided the basis of their domestic assault. Wenger must be lauded. He has improved individuals, increased organisation. His demand for both full-backs to probe in unison so often imploded last season, particularly throughout the 5-1 defeat at Anfield. However, Coquelin’s discipline and Bellerin’s rapid pace offset the danger while a fully-fit Koscielny possesses the vital awareness to track runners and intercept penetrating through balls. Meanwhile, the gegenpressing influence, stemming from Sanchez down, denies opponents the space to unlock a tenacious unit.
True, Arsenal switched off against Swansea, stuttered at Old Trafford but, for the majority of the campaign, the defence appeared more solid, more tight-knit than at any stage of the last ten years.
The Road to Redemption
The aforementioned capitulations suggested a complete dearth of tactical flexibility. A persistent reluctance, or inability perhaps, to adapt to their opponents. In 2015, however, Wenger altered demands, changed the flow and snapped tradition. Arsenal, often outthought, perennially outfought, have evolved into a more vigilant unit, especially in decisive encounters. The victories against City and Liverpool epitomise an intriguing tactical alteration.
In their impressive win at the Etihad, the Gunners sat deep, invited pressure and restricted the space. Far removed from their usual buccaneering bombast. Coquelin hustled and harried, his rampant tenacity and frequent interceptions reducing David Silva to spectator status. Thus, City’s primary threat was neutralised. Meanwhile, with the deposed Champions overly committed, the energy and positivity of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey, Cazorla and Sanchez provided a constant, game-changing outball. Counter-attacking Arsenal; a previously unfeasible notion. Yet, for all Wenger’s proud, possession-based principles, his tactical flexibility secured a vital, unexpected win.
Meanwhile, Arsenal’s 4-1 hammering of Liverpool arose from exploiting the visitor’s methodical build-up. Pressing high and forcing errors, Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho, so prone to distributional lapses, were ran ragged. The opening goal was sublime yet simple; a brainchild of Wenger’s cognition. Positioning Ramsey on the right of midfield, he floated behind the ill-positioned Alberto Moreno, dragging Sakho wide. This, thanks to Brendon Rodgers’ three-man backline, opened space in acres. Space that Bellerin exploited with typical exuberance. On the left, Sanchez and Monreal dovetailed telepathically, utilising Lazar Markovic’s positional insecurity and isolating the leisurely Emre Can. The third arose moments before half time; Sanchez exploiting Toure’s indiscipline before Giroud rounded off a remarkable win as Arsenal once again took advantage of Liverpool’s lack of cover on the flanks.
Wenger inverted his opponent’s gameplan, transforming their strengths into a weakness. Flexible, intelligent and increasingly ruthless, the Le Professeur’s insightful game management has gone some way to righting last season’s cumulative wrongs.
2014/15 is not the season red and white ribbons returned to adorn the Premier League trophy. But it may be the campaign that kick-starts their road to redemption. The positives cannot be ignored. A more balanced, multi-talented unit; a strong, reliable defence; an ability to perform under pressure; improved performances against rivals; another cup for the cabinet. Arsenal are looking ominous. A few insightful arrivals, primarily a sturdy defensive shield in the shape of Morgan Schneiderlin and potentially a prolific forward, could transform Arsenal from also-rans to title-challengers. Wenger, embarking upon his third decade in the Arsenal hotseat, has shown a desire to change, to adapt to the modern game’s altering outlook. Wenger’s final years will define his legacy. But, with the dark clouds of Financial Fair Play hovering over their rivals, and a youthful, exuberant squad at his disposal, the next few seasons are looking increasingly positive. ‘Specialist in failure?’ We’ll see about that.