As Arsenal succumbed to a sixth dropped point at home, it was striking that an onslaught only arrived in the final 8 minutes. Arsenal were at home and trailing in a game that was must-win, and they spent a large part of the second half not attacking with the intensity and pace that one would expect. It came at last, and had the match lasted for two more minutes, Arsenal may have gotten the breakthrough, but why did it take so long for Arsenal to up their intensity? It seems that Arsenal are no longer a team, but a collection of individuals: an issue that is not new, but is more pronounced this campaign than it has been in the past.
There are reasons for this. Injuries, of course, are a major reason. We are not, though, qualified professionals that can comment on Arsenal's medical or training practices, though it must be pointed out that the situation that Arsenal are in defensively is an example of negligence. Arsenal started with a back four of Hector Bellerin, Per Mertesacker, Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs yesterday; all it took for Arsenal to get to that stage is a suspension for Calum Chambers, a long-term injury for Mathieu Debuchy and an enforced absence for Laurent Koscielny, who has been nursing Achilles tendinitis for over 6 months. That Arsenal would miss 3 defenders at some point this season is not surprising, but that's all it has taken for a 19-year old to make their debut and a fullback to play his first professional game at centre back.
Arsenal are also in a situation where, before injury, their most important attacking player returned late from the World Cup. Mesut Özil's late return was exacerbated by his new position: as a wide attacking player in a 4-1-4-1 formation. On top of the World Cup, and new signings in Alexis Sánchez and Danny Welbeck, Arsene Wenger's tweaking of the system has changed Arsenal from an outfit that was strong defensively and had good possession in the final third to a side with a weaker defence that is not well protected and an attacking game where there is little penetration. New players, and a new system, and a shorter preseason: Arsenal have effectively been learning on the job, and thus the performances have been inconsistent and disappointing, resulting in Arsenal winning only 4 out of 13 games. Of the 4 games that they have won, 2 came when Arsenal lined up in a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation.
That is where the logic in planning breaks down. Arsenal's title challenge last season was not lost in the big game defeats: it was lost in away losses at Stoke and Manchester United, away draws at Southampton and West Bromwich Albion, and home draws against United and Swansea. In those 6 games, Arsenal scored 5 goals, and conceded 7: obviously, goal scoring was the issue.
It was the side of the that Arsene Wenger touched on at the end of the season, noting how Liverpool and Manchester City broke the 100-goal mark, and as Jose Mourinho improved his attack, buying Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal bought Alexis, and on transfer deadline day, Danny Welbeck. If Arsenal were a side where the lack of pace and runners affected Özil's play, especially without Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott, they had theoretically rectified that with their summer additions. Everything seemed to be set, especially as the shorted pre-season meant there was really no time to take on espresso and new ideas. And even if there were new players to integrate, having the same roles for most of the spine of the team would ensure that transition would be less pronounced.
Instead, the system was changed. And while some claim that the formation change isn't a big change, and that the numbers denote something that is not real, this change does affect both sides of the game. Firstly, there is Mesut Özil's well-documented struggles in the wide position. A bigger issue, though, is the inverting of the double-pivot to a single-pivot. In Martí Peranau's book on Pep Guardiola's first season at Bayern Munich, the change is very much discussed. In 2012/13, Bayern swept all before them as they marched to the treble, with the double pivot of Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger key to their success. Guardiola's preference, based on his playing and managing career at Barcelona, was for a single pivot. Ultimately, Guardiola became more flexible.
Arsenal didn't sweep all before them in 2013/14, but the usefulness of the double pivot was apparent: the defensive midfielder had more passing options, which becomes especially important when considering that Mathieu Flamini has started quite a lot this season. Furthermore, with a double pivot, the second central midfielder, usually Aaron Ramsey, contributes more to building in the middle before driving forward: it's these late runs that put the midfielder in a better situation to quickly press then defend a counter attack.
If this sounds repetitious, it's because it is. The same issues remain, even two months into the season, and while there was a better performance at Stamford Bridge in the new system, it made far more sense to return to a system where the individuals were familiar with their roles, especially against the lesser sides of the Premier League, where the benefits of the 4-1-4-1, mainly better pressing when playing 10 men behind ball, are of lesser importance. At this point in the season, the midfield still seems unfamiliar with their tasks, which may explain Jack Wilshere's horrendous defensive work prior to Hull City's second goal Saturday afternoon.
Furthermore, without a defined #10 and a link between the defensive midfielder and rest of the midfield, Arsenal's passing becomes wayward and slow, especially with Flamini in the side. Thus, instead of playing at a consistent high intensity, with quick moves and penetrative play, Arsenal's attack becomes dependent on individual brilliance. There are periods of the game, where the opposition drop off enough, where Arsenal can play very well, but that isn't sustained. And while it is not all the system's fault, the fact that Arsenal are playing a different system means that a lot of the combination play and expected moves and runs off the ball are missing: the very aspects that make a football team a team are missing.
This doesn't excuse some individuals from poor performances, and improved individual performances will certainly get more points. But without Arsenal becoming more of a team, with defined and understood roles, Arsenal will continue to play in a broken, chaotic way. And instead of the possibility of this side sustaining a title challenge, Arsenal will become mired in a 4th-place race. After 13 games this season, Arsenal are clearly a worse team than they were last year: ultimately, the responsibility rests on the manager's shoulders, and it is his job to ensure that the collection of individuals are moulded into a team.