“Attack!” is the cry at Arsenal, “and defend...” is the gentle prompt. Arsène Wenger’s latest attacking set-up has caused a stir and it’s vulnerability is evident. Welbeck and Alexis may help convert attack into defence and vice versa, but the team will have to work together more effectively if they are to help a struggling Arteta.
The peak of Arsenal’s summer transfer window was probably the sensational £30million signing of Alexis (yes, just ‘Alexis’ from now on - He likes it that way). The Chilean is settling in rather well and has a couple of goals under his belt already. His wiggling hips and dancing feet have brought back some much needed (and very much missed) ooh-ing and ah-ing amongst the crowds.
However, beyond the Emirates pitch becoming centre-stage for Alexis’ salsa show, it is his fiery tenacious side that has really hit it off with the fans. Relentless pressure on the opponent and his unfaltering energy and determination to have the ball as much as possible has started to somewhat set a tone amongst this year’s Arsenal side. This Alexis osmosis was most evident at the second leg vs Besiktas when, with Alexis leading the line by example, the whole team adopted a fighting spirit in order to see the game out.
Although, when it comes to pressing, Alexis is often doing it by himself. This crucial part of the modern game is best executed as a whole team or, rather more accurately, in packs. When doing it all on your lonesome it can be a) quite tiring, b) quite ineffectual, and c) quite bloody frustrating. Alexis is crying out for another hard-worker up top, someone else who can help him force opposition defenders into mistakes and sloppy hoofs upfield.
This is where Danny Welbeck comes in. Arsenal’s deadline day signing is another player who works his socks off and likes to do this pressing thing too. Welbeck’s defending from the front was particularly evident and effective against Aston Villa, and on that showing there is no doubt that the energetic Welbeck can certainly help Alexis in this regard.
Last season, at least for lengthy periods, Arsenal lacked pace going forward, but this season there’s quite a lot of it. These quick players and runners from midfield actually suit a counter-attacking game as well as a more classic ‘Wait for it... Wait for it...’ Arsenal possession game and counter-attacking opportunities usually arise following opposition mistakes. In order to force said errors, there needs to be off-the-ball pressing going on - especially from forward players. With in-sync and well rehearsed pressure, Arsenal can become a much more dynamic side, whilst also re-finding their ability to defend as a unit in an effective way.
The DM Debate - it’s still a thing.
A defensive midfielder is something that is repeatedly mooted as a missing piece in the Arsenal jigsaw. Although it has been called for by fans and pundits alike for many years and thus, over that period, papers linking every DM in the world with Arsenal, it seems that it was only the summer just gone that there was genuine prioritisation of the position with regards to dipping into the transfer market. However, after a promising pursuit of Morgan Schneiderlin that not too long after the World Cup went cold, a long and complicated attempt to bring in William Carvalho and rumours of a last ditch try for an unspecified French midfielder on deadline day, it was to be a fruitless foray.
Now there is an Arsenal side set up in a new shape that has a tendency to be top heavy and attacking (for Arsène, it was ever thus). But what now, a month into the new season, really sticks out like a sore thumb is the fact that such a system works best when the defensive midfield role is occupied by an athletic player. A player who is both strong and quick (enough), as well as having the tactical nous to read the game well. Although Arteta, bless his soul (and hair), is probably one of the most intelligent and hardworking players at the club, the manager’s progression to a system that requires the DM role to need less help from fellow midfielders means that the Spaniard struggles physically.
In Dortmund, Arsenal were exposed to the lightening quick counter-attacking threat of BVB’s front line. A combination of over commitment of the full-backs in attack (something we see all too often) and carelessness in possession led to Arteta struggling to protect the flanks from much faster players than himself. At Villa Park, a similar situation occurred, albeit much more rarely, generally more centrally and fortunately less costly.
It is likely that as the players adapt to this new system there will be a better collective understanding and awareness of defensive positioning (I refer back to pressing and working as a unit), which will undoubtedly help the deep midfielder, whomever that is. The reason I speculate thus, is because I believe that an option that offers more strength and athleticism is young Isaac Hayden. Isaac is still a way off a starting role and will need to be ‘blooded’ as such, but I feel that his increasing integration into the first team set-up is a sign that he may well have a part to play at some point this season... Only time will tell.