It has been a typical start to the season by Arsenal: an opening day defeat to West Ham, torrid fortune in the Champions League (initially), and the very much alive “Wenger Out” brigade calling for the manager to be sacked after each and every loss.
Arsenal’s first three months of the season have been as up and down as ever. August was forgettable, September saw embarrassment and ecstasy, but thus far in October Arsenal have strived close to the realms of perfection. The wins against Manchester United and Bayern Munich, with an eventually comfortable victory over Watford sandwiched in between, have seen Wenger’s side score eight goals and concede none.
Arsenal success attributed to adaptability
Arsenal’s ability to adapt has been clear in October, most noticeably in their last vital Champions League group game against Bayern Munich. The pre-existing expectation that Arsenal will dominate possession hasn’t entirely disappeared, but the tactical naivety to try and dominate possession against nearly all teams with few exceptions has. Even in Arsenal’s first game this month against Manchester United, they allowed Van Gaal’s men over 60% possession during the course of the game. The main reason for success and a 3-0 victory was concentrated possession and lethal attacks. Sometimes less is more. Arsenal seem to have discovered that most noticeably this month.
It’s also worth pointing out the 2-0 victory away at Manchester City last season as part of the template for this success, as opposed to this month alone being the catalyst for change. The real reason lies somewhere in between. The very real problem for Arsenal is continuing performances of this nature and choosing when to adapt their game. In the past, when teams have played against Arsenal like they themselves played against Bayern Munich and Manchester United, the results have been devastating.
Arsenal’s previous two European group games this season demonstrate their vulnerabilities most precisely. Arsenal had more of the ball in both games (even with 10 men against Zagreb) and ultimately ended up losing to teams they are certainly capable of beating. Of course, individual actions were costly in both games. Both David Ospina and Olivier Giroud made the job easier for the opposition in each game, but Arsenal had conceded before Ospina made his mistake and went a goal down before Giroud was sent off. Clearly the approach was wrong from the start and Arsenal failed to adapt in the best way to achieve a result in the game.
The Arsenal cycle…Fans and players alike
Success can be frustrating. In particular success that cannot consistently be replicated. The stigmatic truth behind Arsenal is that there is an expectation that they will repeat old unwanted habits as frequently as new and desirable ones.
A prime example of this came on the first day of this season. In the build up to the new campaign optimism was high, despite additions to the squad still being asked for. The one addition Arsenal had made was Petr Cech, there was no question surrounding his quality and it was thoroughly expected his transition from Arsenal to Chelsea would come without any hiccups.
Fast forward to the game itself and Cech made one blindingly obvious error and arguably could have done a lot better to stop the West Ham winner too. Cech himself is far too experienced to let one performance bother him and accepted the brief criticism that came his way. Meanwhile, some Arsenal fans were quick to lambast Mesut Özil for being “schooled” by the 16-year-old Reece Oxford, who, on the day, was exceptional.
The optimism of pre-season, to some extent, was irrationally disposed of and panic set in over pragmatic reflection. The fact Cech and Özil are now two of Arsenal’s most in-form players, alongside the fact West Ham have beaten Liverpool and Manchester City on their travels, shows that this was nothing more than a blip. Yet the Arsenal fans and players alike are all too used to such blips, these blips can and will cost Arsenal Premier League title opportunities should they continue. The question now lies in the ability for Arsenal to minimise returning to old unwanted habits and adapting most effectively to each and every game – Wenger will hold the overwhelming majority of responsibility in this task.
Tactical awareness and in-game awareness: The new philosophy for success?
Beautiful football has its place. Indeed Arsenal still exhibited it in abundance with less possession against Manchester United. However, the scrappy goal Giroud managed to fumble in against Bayern Munich was equally as important, just as Özil’s shot creeping marginally over the line for the second and decisive goal in the game was. The two factors that linked these two events was clear.
Firstly, the tactical awareness from Arsene Wenger to realise the game was poised in such a way that bringing Giroud on was necessary. Bayern Munich had been dealing with Theo Walcott (who was a nuisance all game for the defence), now they had to adapt entirely to cope with the aerial threat Giroud poses. Perhaps their failure to adapt came in the form of the experienced and often mesmerising hands of Manuel Neuer. His rush out to catch the ball may have been a response to the new threat Grioud posed or simply a mistake in a game he’d otherwise been spectacular in. What cannot be speculated about was the fact Arsenal changed their tactical approach and in course managed to change the game too.
The second factor that is of importance to Arsenal is their ability to recognise “the moment”. Hector Bellerin seized the opportunity (“opportunity” being a grandiose term for the reality of the situation), managing to run from his own half in order to intercept a pass being played midway in the opposing half. The burst of pace was astonishing. The composure to keep his run going was reassuring and the eventual goal that came from it was far from glamorously awarded, but may very well be reinvigorating for Arsenal’s Champions League campaign and their season as a whole.
Arsenal will need to continue to change their style of play this season to be successful. The attractive football associated with the club doesn’t have to disappear for this to be achieved. A great deal of hope can be taken from Arsenal’s latest run of form; now all that remains is whether or not they can continue it for a prolonged period of time. If they can, there’s absolutely no reason why Arsenal can’t continue to make trophies more of a regularity under Arsene Wenger.