Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Stoke on Saturday took them to just 4 points off the top four Champions League places. It has been yet another stop-start season for Arsene Wenger’s team; quickly finding themselves behind the pace for the title, and striving to nip into those precious qualifying spots ever since.
So what has changed from last season? It is certainly a question that has been hot on the tongues of almost every Arsenal fan this year. ‘What is Wenger doing to get us back to the glory days, which seem further away than ever?’
Speaking after the victory against Stoke, Wenger noted,
‘In England, you have to deal with all types of football without losing your qualities in how you want to play’. Wenger told Arsenal.com
This sums up the attitude that Wenger brought to the English game all those years ago, the attitude that won him so much success; but also an attitude that has arguably held him back in recent times, that has restricted Arsenal’s growth alongside the new money in the Premier League. There are clear signs however, that Wenger is starting to change tack.
With the summer signings of Lukas Podolski, and more obviously, Olivier Giroud, Wenger has acquired players that are not usually a factor in his team make-up. Wenger’s attacking philosophy has always been that of fast, vibrant football – heavy in possession, light on physicality.
In Giroud, and arguably the failed Chamakh before him, Wenger is trying to expand his dimensions; attempting to give Arsenal an added weapon, one that could be assimilated into his original design, giving his side a more physical edge.
While Giroud has not become an overnight ‘Didier Drogba-esque’ monster up front for Wenger, he still has 14 goals and 11 assists this season in all competitions, and is certainly starting to adapt into the team.
After a strong performance in the narrow win against Brighton in the Cup last month, Wenger praised his new ‘fighter’:
‘When he gets in the fighting mode, he (Giroud) is difficult to handle,’
‘He could have played 20 years ago in England, 10 years ago and today because he has everything you need to play centre-forward.’ Wenger told the Daily Mail
‘Usually we go more for mobile players, but he gives us something different, and I believe with him and Theo we have a good partnership.’
The Brighton game provided more than a good showing from his big striker; an astonishing fight between Arsenal fans over a banner which read, “Arsene, thanks for the memories, but it’s time to say goodbye.”
This showed the real tear in allegiance for the Frenchman, with some still staunchly in his defence, while some dabble with the idea that it may be time to say ‘adieu’. The incident was brushed over quickly, but it is certainly a very worrying sign for Wenger and club.
The huge wins that always feature in Arsenal’s seasons have once more been a highlight. The dismantling of Southampton, Tottenham, Reading (Premiership and FA Cup), and Newcastle were impressive, but the Gunners still conceded 13 goals in these five games.
Nacho Monreal has come in at left back, and his strong debut was praised by his boss. It is no easy beginning to life in the Premier League when charged with shackling the brutish John Walters.
Unnecessary draws against Fulham and Aston Villa, coupled with damaging defeats to Norwich and Swansea have had critics point to a lack of fight in the team. It is a point that Wenger has needed to address for some time.
This issue may be due to a lack of a defensive midfield replacement for the departed Alex Song. Jack Wilshire is an all action dynamo in the middle, not a man to sit and wait for the action to come to him. Arteta has been deployed there on occasion, but the Spaniard has too much of a playmaking attitude to really adapt to the role.
Perhaps a crucial point to make with regard to Arsenal’s imbalance is Wenger’s willingness to drop golden boy Santi Cazorla for Abou Diaby, to add further steel in his midfield against Stoke.
‘We played Diaby because in front of the defence he can win some headers.’ Wenger told the Guardian,
‘(It) is not always easy because if you have 10 Cazorlas, you would have a very good technical team but against Stoke you would struggle.’
Wenger’s Cazorla metaphor may be obvious, but it was certainly a bold move to omit his creative fulcrum from the first eleven for the first time in the Premier League. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also started the game, a man although still only 19 years old, but who possesses considerable bulk, with Arsenal fans affectionately nicknaming him ‘the Ox’.
These are all signs that Wenger is shifting from what is often considered his stubborn reliance on beauty, to permitting a dash of much needed brawn in his make-up of talent for those tougher of fixtures.
With 25 games played, a betting man would surely back the Gunners to secure yet another Champions League birth. There is blood in the water, that of both the inexperienced Tottenham and the currently befuddled Chelsea.
While a return to the days of perfection may still be a pipe-dream, Wenger will always strive for it. Whether he ultimately succeeds or not strongly depends on how he fares against his greatest obstacle – the unhappy Arsenal fans.
What are your thoughts on Arsene’s new-look squad and approach? Get involved in the comments section below.