Arsenal's 0-0 draw with Manchester United wasn't greatly different from most of Arsenal's home matches this season. They kept the opposition to a clean sheet, didn't create much in the first half, and opened up in the second half. Against a better defence than that of Cardiff, Fulham and Crystal Palace, though, Arsenal failed to consistently create chances, and missed the ones they did create, as they sputtered to a 0-0 draw. The spark has gone out of Arsenal's attack since they comfortably dispatched Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 in the FA Cup, which coincided, of course, with Theo Walcott's season-ending injury. The culmination of that lack of spark has been in the last two matches, where Arsenal have looked as threatening as a particularly small field mouse. Arsenal's form over the last month, particularly the past few games, leads itself to several conclusions.
1. It's time for a change upfront
Olivier Giroud has struggled in the new year, missing chances he wasn't missing at the beginning of the season, and looking more and more to the skies in frustration. While he has scored 3 times in 2014, one of those goals came against Coventry City, and the other came at the height of Arsenal's five minute blitzes. Without the runs of Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey to play off of him, the assists have dried up, and he's not stretching space by making runs behind. Mesut Özil was visibly frustrated with Giroud's movement yesterday, and it is little wonder why: too often the Frenchman did not offer Özil an attractive pass. Lukas Podolski has offered very little from a centre forward position, but Arsenal do have a centre forward that links play, and offers mobility and runs behind: Nicklas Bendtner. It is unfortunate that Bendtner got injured after giving Arsenal three points against Cardiff City, as he appeared rusty in his next start, in the FA Cup. He should be fully fit now, though, and without Ramsey and Walcott, he simply offers more than Giroud at the moment. Furthermore, when fit and concentrated, as he will be, Bendtner may prove to be a better finisher than a clearly tired Giroud, who has racked up a lot of miles leading the line.
2. Jack Wilshere cannot play central midfield
Jack Wilshere failed to convince yesterday, and after underwhelming against Liverpool, it is time for a change in the midfield. Wilshere has not played well in the engine room of Arsenal's midfield against the best sides since he returned from his 17-month long absence. As friend (and occasional contributor) of the blog Michael Keshani noted, Wilshere, despite his obvious talents, doesn't offer either Mikel Arteta or Mesut Özil a solid passing option and is unreliable in his positioning. Tim Stillman also offers a similar comment, writing that
Wilshere has played a little too far away from Arteta to provide an out ball for the Spaniard and not close enough to Özil. In essence, he has been an island in the midfield three rather than a connecting presence, which has left Arteta and Özil looking like driftwood at times
Arsenal have two other options: Tomas Rosicky could play alongside Mikel Arteta, providing energy, thrust and tactical intelligence, or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could take up the role he played so well against Crystal Palace. There is, of course, some risk playing Oxlade-Chamberlain there. He's largely untested in the midfield, with his appearances there coming in a strange game with AC Milan, last season's final day tilt with Newcastle, where Arsenal defended deeply, League One Coventry City, and Crystal Palace. Yet, he's displayed a notable intelligence for the role, and has talked to a similar tune when asked about his midfield performances:
When you are in midfield, a lot of it is about tracking runners and being in the right position to help out your back four and shield balls going through the lines and into the opposition striker.
"If I am in midfield I will still be the player who drives forward with the ball or makes a run. For me, that will always be a part of my game. In midfield you just need to be more careful when you do that, and [know when] to sit and help out the team
3. Arsene Wenger needs to take a risk
Arsenal are at a crossroads. The season, until last Saturday, offered much excitement and promise in the professionalism of the side in getting results. The last two matches, though, have taken some of the sheen off the season. Simply put, Arsenal need to change. They don't need to change much, but just need to fine-tune a bit, as Wenger has done in the past two seasons around this time of year. Away from home, Arsenal have been susceptible to teams starting quickly and pressing them. Part of that has to do with the absence of Ramsey and Walcott, but part of it is also down to Arsenal's sluggish start; instead, Arsenal need to react in the right way, and show more intelligence. When they have gone a goal down, they have seemingly panicked. Against Liverpool, the fullbacks, Nacho Monreal and Bacary Sagna, were pushed extremely high up in the 10th minute as though it was the 85th, and Jack Wilshere rather abandoned Mikel Arteta. At home, Arsenal need to offer more of a goal-threat, and more pace. Either Oxlade-Chamberlain should play in central midfield, or on the left: those are his two most dangerous positions. Serge Gnabry could also be reintroduced into the side. Lukas Podolski has seemingly been frozen out, but he is more dangerous as a substitute anyway. But Arsenal cannot keep on as they have been, and hope Ramsey returns sooner than later; instead, they need to change the narrative about their qualities, starting this weekend with Liverpool, and taking maximum points in the league from the next three matches. If they don't, Arsenal's season will stutter in a familiar manner.