How Arsenal still haven’t filled Vieira-shaped hole in their side

Wenger’s side are dis­play­ing the same old flaw – the lack of a com­mand­ing mid­fielder

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SOCCER - Jonathan Wilson

It turns out the switch to a back three was not a magic bul­let, after all.

It is early days still, of course, but al­ready the sense is that for Arsenal the move to the tac­tic

du jour was just the 2017 ver­sion of their reg­u­lar up­swing in April and May.

No­body has mon­e­tised medi­ocrity quite so well;hey are masters at stim­u­lat­ing op­ti­mism at just the right mo­ment to max­imise sea­son-ticket sales.

The fa­mil­iar tropes are al­ready be­ing wheeled out; the ex­cel­lent record at Wem­b­ley (nine wins in a row if you in­clude penalty shootouts, a run that pre­sum­ably makes Tot­ten­ham’s strug­gles there all the more amus­ing for Arsenal fans); the ter­ri­ble record at Stoke (one win in eight games); and per­haps most gallingly, the end­lessly frag­ile mid­field.

Frac­tion off­side

To an ex­tent Arsenal were un­lucky at Stoke last Satur­day. Alexandre La­cazette may have been a frac­tion off­side when he had a goal ruled out, but many of­fi­cials would have re­garded him as be­ing level with the last de­fender. They had six shots on tar­get to Stoke’s four – or, if that feels old-fash­ioned, they won 1.74 to 0.68 on Ex­pected Goals.

It was, to an ex­tent, just one of those days; it’s just that Arsenal keep hav­ing those days, par­tic­u­larly in Stoke.

Phys­i­cally im­pos­ing

And through it all, one thread en­dures. Arsenal may have started spend­ing (rel­a­tively) big on play­ers. They may at last have brought in a high-grade centre-for­ward (even if there are doubts about La­cazette’s con­tri­bu­tion out­side the box); they may fi­nally have, in Sead Ko­lasinac, a phys­i­cally im­pos­ing pres­ence; they may even for once hold on to a want-away player (although it is prob­a­bly best to re­serve judge­ment on that for another week or so); but they still lack a com­mand­ing cen­tral mid­fielder.

Tem­po­rary so­lu­tions may at times have been patched to­gether, but Pa­trick Vieira has never truly been re­placed. That’s hardly a new in­sight and its dis­cus­sion may pro­voke sighs of weari­ness but it re­mains as true as it has been for more than a decade.

Ottmar Hitzfeld, who won Cham­pi­ons League ti­tles with both Borus­sia Dort­mund and Bay­ern Mu­nich, often spoke of the “red zone”, the cen­tral area just out­side the penalty area.

A team’s first pri­or­ity must al­ways be to pro­tect that, to try to avoid, as far as pos­si­ble, op­po­nents gen­er­at­ing shoot­ing, pass­ing or drib­bling op­por­tu­ni­ties from that area. That can be done by press­ing, squeez­ing the space be­tween the lines, or it can be done by hav­ing one or more hold­ing mid­field­ers sit­ting there, but what can­not hap­pen is for cen­tral de­fend­ers to be iso­lated against an op­po­nent with space in front of him.

Ba­sic task

One of the rea­sons for the re­cent suc­cess of 3-4-2-1 is that it has such a sta­ble base: three cen­tral de­fend­ers pro­tected by a screen of two hold­ing play­ers – the same trapez­ium shape that was the base of the W-M for­ma­tion and that has returned to fash­ion as full-backs have be­gun to shuck off their de­fen­sive re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, plac­ing greater strain on the centre-halves.

To­wards the end of last sea­son, the shape seemed to bring some sta­bil­ity even to Arsenal. Yet Le­ices­ter ram­paged through that space again and again on the open­ing Premier League game of the sea­son as the two nom­i­nal hold­ing mid­field­ers, Granit Xhaka and Mo­hamed El­neny were too often drawn up­field.

Jesé Ro­dríguez en­joyed that space for Stoke as well, but his goal was less to do with shape than with Xhaka not per­form­ing the ut­terly ba­sic task of fol­low­ing his run into the box.

Di­vi­sive fig­ure

Xhaka is a di­vi­sive fig­ure but it is hard to see why. He may have av­er­aged al­most 90 per cent pass com­ple­tion last sea­son while mak­ing 2.4 tack­les per game (although given he also con­ceded 1.2 fouls per game that is per­haps not quite such an im­pres­sive fig­ure as it may ini­tially ap­pear) but

His apol­o­gists claim that his role is to cre­ate the play, keep­ing the ball mov­ing, and there may be some truth to that, but no­body, what­ever their role, can just let a for­ward run off him as he al­lowed Jesé to.

Be­sides, if that is Xhaka’s role, why doesn’t he have a more ro­bust, ball-win­ning pres­ence along­side him, some­body to act as a break­wa­ter for op­po­si­tion at­tacks? The issue is par­tic­u­larly acute at Arsenal given the lack of de­fen­sive cover of­fered to the back of the mid­field by Me­sut Özil.

In a world of in­creas­ingly uni­ver­sal

‘‘ The issue is par­tic­u­larly acute at Arsenal given the lack of de­fen­sive cover of­fered to the back of the mid­field by Me­sut Özil

play­ers, in which they are all ex­pected to be able both to pass and to per­form ba­sic de­fen­sive func­tions, Arsenal seem in­creas­ingly anachro­nis­tic, the prob­lem ex­ac­er­bated by Arsène Wenger’s re­fusal to sign the hold­ing player who might mit­i­gate the prob­lem.

It seems in­creas­ingly likely that his­tory will judge Wil­liam Car­valho’s most sig­nif­i­cant act in foot­ball was to re­main un­signed by Arsenal.

Threat

It is an area likely to be par­tic­u­larly ex­posed to­mor­row as Arsenal travel to An­field. Last sea­son they leaked seven goals over two league games against Liver­pool. In both matches Roberto Firmino pros­pered by drop­ping deep into pre­cisely that space; if Arsenal can­not deal with a threat into that zone com­ing from in front of them, they strug­gle even more when it comes from be­hind them.

If de­fend­ers fol­low Firmino that in turn cre­ates space for wide men to cut into. Given the ar­rival of Mo­hamed Salah means Liver­pool now have pace on both flanks, to­mor­row could be hor­ri­bly messy for Arsenal as the same fail­ing re­peats once again.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY IM­AGES

Granit Xhaka again and again seems to lose con­cen­tra­tion, ex­pos­ing the de­fend­ers be­hind him.

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