With his January additions, Arsene Wenger appears to have created an attacking unit that can perfectly understand the type of football he wants to play. However, the jigsaw puzzle remains incomplete and there are some important pieces that have been eluding Wenger for many years. Can he make Arsenal‘s new system work?
Have Arsenal found the system that works for them?
The good news for Arsenal is that the attack has transformed greatly in the space of a month. For over a year now, Plan A was to feed everything to Alexis Sanchez and hope the Chilean could provide the end product. Plan B? There wasn’t one. Perhaps sending Olivier Giroud on to feed off the questionable aerial balls was one. Maybe hoping Alexandre Lacazette could become involved enough to distract a couple of defenders was another. In reality, these were measures of desperation. The vitriol towards Sanchez for his poor form was nothing more than frustration for most fans. The problem was not him, but rather the lack of alternatives when he wasn’t playing to the high standards expected of him.
Now, Arsenal have a bit more balance. The fluidity of the three attacking midfielders was evident against Everton. Whereas before stopping Mesut Ozil would slow Arsenal down, now teams have to consider Henrikh Mkhitaryan as an equally dangerous playmaker. Alongside those two, Alex Iwobi proved that, despite his obvious shortcomings, his industry and movement makes him hard to deal with. For this reason, he avoids any criticism, for now. The technical ability between those three is a daunting prospect for opposition managers.
This is where Wenger appears to have understood the needs of the team. Despite claims that he would have liked a team with both Mkhitaryan and Sanchez, his true masterstroke is finding a system that utilises Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Aaron Ramsey to their full abilities. Importantly, this has been created by waving goodbye to Sanchez.
With Aubameyang, he has found a striker who is happy to poach goals just as much as he likes to chase balls over the top. With the aforementioned attacking midfielders, he will be in his element.
How will Arsenal play?
Against sides that sit back and soak up pressure, he can wait for one of the trio to unlock the defence. Eventually, Aubameyang will be afforded a chance and his record speaks for itself. A shot conversion rate of 22.4% in the Bundesliga this season is deadly. Arsenal have a conversion rate of 16.9% this season in the Premier League. As a comparison, Harry Kane’s conversion rate in the league is 15.1% and Mo Salah and Sergio Aguero both sit at 21%.
However, Arsenal won’t always be dominating possession and will face some sides need to be hit on the break. The quick thinking and speed across the ground that Arsenal now possess is perfectly suited to these plays. Aubameyang offers the combined pace and ability not seen from an Arsenal forward since Thierry Henry, so he will thrive off any chance to leave defenders for dead.
But where does Ramsey fit into this? Anyone who saw the Everton game will understand immediately. With Sanchez gone, Ramsey will be given the freedom that saw him have his most successful season in 2013/14. This extra body, particularly coming from so deep, is a nightmare for defenders to deal with unless their midfield keeps focus and tracks the runs; something that often doesn’t happen.
Problems that still need solving
With all this positivity, it would be erroneous to believe there aren’t any problems that face the team. For all the attacking riches Wenger has amassed, his defensive frailties betray him as a poor man.
Granit Xhaka and Jack Wilshere may be the ones to suffer in this new system. The partner to Ramsey will need to be defensively sound before anything else. Additionally, they need to be able to recycle possession swiftly and consistently.
While clearly talented, both Xhaka and Wilshere cannot provide the defensive protection that this system needs. Both would be welcome replacements in the event of injury to a starter, but don’t quite fit the needs of the team at this time. The obvious exception would be if Wilshere was pushed into an attacking midfield role, which he could certainly excel at.
Wenger has found it impossible to find an adequate defensive midfielder in many years, be it through singing a ready-made star or producing a young talent. The bottom line is that Arsenal need to find their own Claude Makelele. If they want to capitalise on the abundance of talented forward players they possess, they need to act fast.
Improving the defence
The summer window will also probably see a focus on central defenders, and a goalkeeper will be high on Wenger’s list too. Laurent Koscielny and Petr Cech are both no longer top class. Shkodran Mustafi has proven inconsistent, but may only be a solid ‘keeper and complementary defensive partner away from showing his true value. Much like finding a defensive midfielder, many doubt Wenger’s ability to spot top quality centre-backs, or indeed goalkeepers, so it will be intriguing to see how the new staff change that.
However, even with plans to replace these players, the problem remains for this season at least. Of eleven outfield players, question marks hang over five of them. Those five are all part of the defensive sextuple, which is incredibly inviting for opposition teams to exploit. Eventually, this may be the difference between Champions League or Europa League football.
The system Wenger has created will work and he could have his first great team since the Invincibles. But, until any additions are walking onto the pitch for Arsenal, this delicate puzzle has every chance of falling to pieces before it is even halfway to completion.
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