Arsenal: Modus Operandi – Formational Flaw or Personnel Problems?

Mates, welcome back to Arsenal: Modus Operandi – the column that seeks to make some form of sense from some of the most puzzling, questionable and even sublime decisions made by the players and staff at Arsenal Football Club.  Today, we take a look at the match against Liverpool – yes, “again” – as the ceaseless groaning has lingered on far too long. So what precipitated my deciding to write on a match that ended way too long ago? Well, have a look at the picture below – it’s what I found on my front steps as I returned home from a leisurely day out with my wife and wee lads.  To be fair, after the Arsenal win earlier this season I drew a giant cannon on my neighbour’s driveway in red sidewalk chalk that he couldn’t scrub off for a week, and at the end of last season I covered his license plate with “Gunners1”, which he didn’t find for several days. Tit for tat.

The Situation

There has been no shortage of attention directed at Mathieu Flamini this season, and for good reason. The much heralded defensively-minded and tough tackling midfielder has been crucial to Arsenal’s success. And what has endeared the former turn current Gunner to fans once again is that he arrived at London Colney on a free. Bloody brilliant bit of work from AW, that – especially when considering the Red Devils secured the services of that Belgian Sideshow Bob character for nearly £30 million.

But Flamini hasn’t been the only bright spot who has patrolled in front of our French-German-and-sometimes-Belgian central defenders – a Welsh lad by the name of Aaron Ramsey was given the task at times throughout the first half of the season. The way in which they each approached the position is as different as Ferguson and Moyes, with Flamini bringing a relentless physicality to the position and Aaron Ramsey a touch of class.

But on Saturday, faced with the prospects of having neither in the line-up against a surging Liverpool at Anfield, what’s a manager to do?  Wenger acknowledged that Liverpool would present an all-out attack, and with them playing two strikers in Suarez and Sturridge, both of whom know how to find the goal, would a change in formation help?  What personnel would be available?

The Decision

The decision was to continue with the typical Arsenal 4-2-3-1 formation, with a midfield consisting of Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta, with the former Evertonian Arteta given the task of playing in front of Mertesacker and Koscielny.  Arteta has been asked to play the role in the past, with many fans uncertain regarding his effectiveness.

The Verdict

No one could have predicted the scoreline.  With the manner in which Arsenal smothered Liverpool’s midfield the first match this season at the Emirates, it was always going to folly to think it would happen again. First, as mentioned, Aaron Ramsey being injured along with Theo Walcott, and with Mathieu Flamini serving a suspension due to a red card vs. Southampton that alone is enough to destroy what worked so well in the first match.  Jack Wilshere, remember, was just returning from a knock of his own and, even though perhaps he was the only player who I felt ‘gave a damn’ on Saturday, I question whether he was close to 100%. Even Mikel Arteta was required to pass his physical before being put into the line-up, showing how beat-up the Gunners are at the moment.

With Sturridge and Suarez patrolling the Gunners’ 18-yard box, one must assume they would get their chances. And with Henderson full of confidence, veteran Gerrard and maestro Coutinho pushing the pace in the middle, how could we not have anticipated Liverpool having far too many chances?  And if that weren’t enough, don’t underestimate the Liverpool crowd who were fuming at Arsenal not allocating their full allotment of tickets for the FA Cup match.

The question is, what could have been done to prevent this?

Arsene does not often tinker with his formation, but perhaps this was one such instance that he might have.  So if his formation is indeed as set in stone as we must assume (that will be tested against Bayern shortly), then did he choose the right players for this match to fill those positions?

Of course there is no debating that Szczeny, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Giroud are automatic starters. Ozil and Cazorla are as well, based simply on their ridiculous skill.  Santi Cazorla has been fantastic as of late, but the pressure on Mesut Ozil to perform is mounting.  Having Wilshere and Arteta anchoring the midfield is a bit of scary proposition for me. I do recognize the options for who to play in this position were somewhat limited due to injury, however, but the fact that both required fitness tests themselves had me waving a red flag.  I will also not question Bacary Sagna, as I feel Carl Jenkinson is too far away from being up to level.

So that leaves just two positions that I feel could have been filled more effectively.  I do like Nacho Monreal but prefer Kieran Gibbs and I feel his absence was missed.  Given some of the speed Liverpool possess, I think Gibbs’ pace would have been useful.  But for me the biggest err was in not starting Tomas Rosicky.  The Czech international would have added a spark that was clearly missing, save for Jack Wilshere. He is relentless in his back-tracking, never shirking his defensive duties. Take nothing away from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but with the injuries as they are, Rosicky’s defending coupled with his experience would have served the team much better.

Everything after the fact is just that – after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.  I really feel that the correct line-up was not chosen, and that just a few changes could have made an impact.