Arsenal Football Club is forever being accused of cruising in fourth, content to stay in a fast lane without pushing hard enough to overtake.
Arsene Wenger is forever being accused of playing the transfer market with the handbrake on, at ease with his ability to extract the best from value signings.
And the players themselves are forever being accused of bottling it at key junctions of their season, succumbing to defeat too easily when the going gets tough.
While the arguments for and against are complex, some of that criticism has been undeniably fair.
Maybe it’s pre-season optimism, maybe I had too much sun last week in Greece, maybe the signing of Alexis Sanchez has distorted all sense of reality, but I have to say it as I see it - and right now I see this season, as being different.
Arsenal, the manager, and their players are ready to put their foot down.
There’s not as much to do, as some people believe either. In winning the FA Cup and finishing just seven points off champions Manchester City, important psychological strides were made. Barring three catastrophic away defeats the Gunners would also have comfortably boasted the best defensive record around.
But they didn’t of course. So, there are issues that need addressing. Fortunately these are primarily tactical though, therefore easily fixable.
Relying on two relatively small ‘footballing midfielders’ to hold their ground in the engine room, just didn’t work against the strongest, most powerful sides in the division.
In the absence of a forceful defensive midfield presence (something that will be solved should Wenger land Khedira, Bender, Carvalho or Scheiderlin) they were outmuscled far too easily. A situation not aided by their full-backs’ desire to push forward at every opportunity, leaving the side even more stretched than it needed to be.
Playing the Arsenal way is all well and good, and often beautiful to watch, but on occasions such as Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea away – maybe even at home – a more pragmatic ‘horses for courses’ approach would on reflection have served them better.
To solve it (with or without the arrival of one of the aforementioned enforcers) a gentle tweak to the formation is all that’s needed. Swap the ‘No.10’ position for an extra midfielder, and go with a 4-3-3/4-5-1 instead…
Overloaded with attacking talent, any three of Sanchez, Ozil, Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla, Podolski, Chamberlain or Gnabry, would surely be enough of a threat to score goals.
Perhaps even more so with a firmer defensive platform behind them; one that could for supposition’s sake, include Bender, Ramsey and Wilshere. In reserve, Arteta, Rosicky, Flamini, Diaby and the Ox provide more than enough quality alternative options.
While we’re talking tactics, the presence of a third orthodox midfielder would also provide greater cover when the likes of Gibbs and Debuchy inevitably fly forward at Wenger’s behest. This is important, as Arsenal won’t stop pushing them on.
I’ll be surprised if the Gunners boss isn’t working on these considerations ahead of the new campaign.
Having seen where they went wrong, a greater willingness to be tactically flexible is all that’s needed. His team can adapt seamlessly yet effectively to varying set-ups.
The other Achilles Heel was a lack of goals. Considering Walcott, Ramsey, Ozil, Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain started just 74 of a possible 190 Premier League matches between them last season - and that Giroud was forced to run on empty for months – a return of 68 goals isn’t perhaps as bad as it sounds. Yet, to win the title, the team needs more.
Alexis Sanchez, Joel Campbell and a fit again Walcott will certainly assist in this regard. In fact, looking at the list of forward talent available to Arsene Wenger, I tend to agree they’re well stocked for the season ahead; providing another injury curse doesn’t strike several of them down all at once, of course.
Here, another tactical alteration may, on occasion, make sense. Just as he did so effectively in the FA Cup semi-final and final, the option of switching to a 4-4-2 against defensive opponents is an option up Wenger’s sleeve. The prospect of partnering Sanchez with Giroud, while unleashing Walcott and Ozil out wide, wouldn’t just frighten the ‘easy teams’ either, would it?
Many Arsenal fans will continue to worry about the state of the squad, but I genuinely feel the depth is almost there.
David Ospina’s arrival will ensure the goalkeeping situation looks healthy. The arrival of one, perhaps two, young but promising centre-backs would adequately bolster the defensive ranks if Thomas Vermaelen departs. And, I have little doubts that despite rumours Jack Wilshere will be the side’s sitting midfielder, a ball winning presence will be added by August 31.
With a settled back five, exciting options in midfield and attack, and what I’m convinced will be a more refined and flexible tactical approach this season, the Gunners look in outstanding shape to me.
Avoid wholesale injuries, and an improved campaign will be theirs to enjoy – no matter what anyone else does. At attractive odds of around 13/2 to win the title, I might even put my money where my mouth is.
The critics will no doubt continue with their same old theories, but I don’t see it being same old Arsenal this term.
Satisfaction with fourth has gone. This team is capable of accelerating well beyond that in 2014/15.
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