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Behind Arsenal’s performances, the cracks begin to show

The Gunners are in need of more than just minor adjustments to compete at the top level.

Watford v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

Eight games in, nine points off the pace.

To make matters worse, both Manchester teams are yet to lose a single game, while in four out of their eight games, Arsenal managed to earn only one of twelve points. As things stand the Gunners don’t have what it takes to finish in the top four, let alone compete for the title.

But as bad as it is right now, things could get considerably worse, if recent performances are any indication. Even when they emerge with all three points, the Gunners are caught off guard often, and they concede more goals than any other team in the top six. Arsenal need a major overhaul, there is no hiding from that. As good as some of the players in this Arsenal side are, they’re about to face some major issues.

Alexis and Mesut Özil are probably on the way out, Per Mertesacker is retiring at the end of the season, Laurent Koscielny is 32 and frequently injured, and Nacho Monreal, Arsenal’s best defender, is 31. Hector Bellerin, one of the most promising and talented right backs on the planet, may also leave sooner rather than later if Arsenal don’t start competing again.

Santi Cazorla’s absence has been felt in every single game, and he’ll be 33 this December, so even if he returns and plays significant minutes, expecting him to be the Santi of old is extremely optimistic. Granit Xhaka has been lapsing in and out during games, while Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny are good rotation players, but not good enough to dominate games in the middle of the park.

Oh, and Olivier Giroud’s 31 as well, so there’s that.

All this makes it fascinating that Wenger chose to prioritize the purchase of Alexandre Lacazette over fixing the defense and the middle of the park. Lacazette is a great addition, but he alone cannot fix the team’s age issues.

Meanwhile, Manchester City have scored 29 goals and conceded 4. Manchester United have scored 21 goals and conceded 2. Arsenal have scored 12 goals and conceded 10.

To put things in perspective: Arsenal conceded more goals in the Liverpool game than Manchester United have all season, while Manchester City have scored more goals than the combined total of what Arsenal have scored and conceded.

These numbers aren’t just disappointing, they’re pathetic.

Arsene Wenger doesn’t have a plan B or C; at the end of last season the Frenchman switched his plan A to a 3-4-3 formation, and that switch rewarded him with the FA Cup. This was successful to the point that Wenger has started this season with the same formation, and has largely stuck with it.

That is a problem.

Entering every game with the same formation and the same players not only makes you predictable, but it also means your opponents go in knowing how to counteract your strategies, and at the end the only hope for a result is often down to the skills of a gifted player, and not of the performance of the team.

Coaches like Jose Mourinho enter each game with a different tactical approach for every game, because every game is different. In one game against Barcelona, he employed Pepe as a defensive midfielder alongside Xabi Alonso and Lassana Diarra to try to shut down Barcelona’s attack. He did the same thing with Inter, employing Zanetti as a DM as well, and that kind of planning got them to lift the Champions League trophy.

This kind of experimentation is rarely seen by Wenger, and when he does it, it’s often too little too late.

A different approach:

The thing about numbers in sports is that they tell a story, and Arsenal’s story is quite simple. Arsenal scored 77 goals in the 2016/17 season, which may have been enough on its face to help them lift the title, but they also conceded 44 goals, more than any other team in the top six last season. So far in the league this season, Arsenal are giving up 1.25 goals per game; at that rate, they’ll concede 47 or 48 goals, depending on how charitable your rounding is.

Numbers don’t lie, but just as numbers put the Gunners in this mess, numbers can also pull them out of it. Arsenal have never needed to break the bank to reach the top, they just needed to be smart with their purchases, as Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid have shown over the years.

Wenger purchased Alexandre Lacazette after he scored 37 goals in 45 appearances in all competitions last season. A striker’s worth is based on how many goals they score, while a defender’s is based on how many goals they prevent, how many clean sheets they help a team accumulate throughout the season.

The partnership of Victor Ruiz and Alvaro Gonzalez conceded only 33 goals for Villarreal last season, enough to seem them finish fifth and qualify for the Europa League, despite scoring less goals (56) than any other team in the top six in La Liga. Stefan Savic and the ever dependable Diego Godin conceded only 27 goals for Atletico Madrid last season.

And using the most painful example one can think of in the Premier League, Spurs conceded only 26 goals last season, less than Chelsea despite the fact that they played more games last season, thanks to the likes of Thomas Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld at the back.

But it’s not just these talented names that led these teams to a better defensive record than Arsenal’s, it was how these players were utilized as a collective whole. Despite their differences, all these teams had two things in common:

1) A back four formation that was complimented by extra numbers in the middle of the park; from Spurs’ 4-2-3-1 to Atletico Madrid’s tried and true 4-4-2, and even Villarreal’s diamond formation of 4-1-2-1-2 (or 4-3-1-2 for the nit-picky). All these formations meant a steady back four, and whenever one of the fullbacks overlapped, one of the midfielders usually covered for them.

This is something Arsenal have lacked time and again, and the new formation exposes them more in that regard. The formation Arsenal utilized often seems like a 5-2-3, with Bellerin and Saed Kolasinac still serving as full backs, but in reality it’s been more of a 3-4-3 due to their attacking nature, with Kolasinac already scoring two goals for Arsenal. Let’s not forget that he’s a fullback, the person least likely to score after the goalkeeper.

Arsenal commit too many players forward, and are easily caught off-guard. To make matters worse, they don’t track back and press in time, which leads us to the second point.

Spurs usual formation last season

2) Team pressure high up the field. This is something Arsenal have not done properly in recent weeks, but when you add effective high pressing to a back four formation like Atletico Madrid’s and Spurs’, and if it’s done well, the difference can be night and day.

To illustrate this in detail, here’s the game against Spurs in 2015. In the 49th second of the video, Eriksen pressed high up the pitch, and out of nothing created a goal. If you pause at 0:50, you’ll see that there six Spurs players high up the pitch, while the core back four were in their own half. This was not unique to this particular second, nor was this goal a lucky break; this was discipline and tactical focus yielding results, pure and simple.

When you witness this kind of focus for 90 minutes, is it difficult to see why these teams perform better and concede less? Xhaka’s positioning in Watford’s second goal is a well known meme at this point, but it’s a meme for good reason. Arsenal tend to go AWOL from time to time, and these few moments of lapsed concentration are enough to define a team’s season, as Steven Gerard’s slip in the 2013-14 season will tell you.

These issues aren’t new; they’ve been around for years now. Even when Arsenal played with a back four, it leaned more towards being a 4-3-3, with the front three not pressing as often as they should have (many pundits have made a living specifically criticizing Özil for this).

Purchasing a defender like Godin, Savic, or Victor Ruiz wouldn’t break the bank, and having a formation that requires 90 minutes of discipline and focus is a logical next step for a talented squad. Having backup formations for certain teams is a requirement of the modern game, and this is something fans have been hoping Wenger would have for years now.

As things stand, this team isn’t good enough to win the Premier League, and unless drastic changes are made to this team and how they approach each game, finishing out of the top four will not be a one-off, but rather a depressing habit.