Arsenal finds itself in an awkward position after this weekend.
In drawing 2-2 away against Everton, it came from 2-0 down, stayed calm and averted a disaster with a last-minute Olivier Giroud equalizer. These were positive signs and represent a clear improvement on last season’s various away-day catastrophes, where disaster was embraced, not warded off smartly.
But at the same time, Arsene Wenger’s team also managed to arrive at the point where it was 2-0 down away to Everton and was outplayed for large portions of a game against opposition it needs to move clear of if it is to consider itself a legitimate title contender. These were less positive signs.
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How Wenger reads this awkward position comes down to ambition. If he thinks what he saw on Saturday was good enough, then he’s aiming for fourth or third at best—not winning the Premier League. If he aspires towards more than the “fourth-place trophy”, then he has things to adjust.
By “things”, of course, I mean tactics. Because tactically Wenger seems to be stuck in a self-indulgent mode. His midfield setup against Everton was everything he likes in a midfield: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Mesut Ozil are slight, quick and clever midfielders, designed as a collective which sidesteps tackles, rather than initiates them. Only Mathieu Flamini represented any concession to the idea that his opponents could exist as an attacking force at all. And Saturday’s match proceeded accordingly.
Everton pulled Arsenal apart easily and often. In the centre of midfield, Gareth Barry and James McCarthy took charge of all comings and goings, with their authority largely unchallenged. Out wide, Leighton Baines, Shamus Coleman, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas did not even have to be particularly efficient to be effective: they got so much space to attack Arsenal that they were bound to make a telling contribution eventually and Coleman scored midway through the first half.
Wenger started a midfield that relied on almost total dominance if it was going to succeed and, as we all know, that’s extremely rare in top-of-the-table Premier League matches. Ozil as a notional winger left space in behind him (which Nacho Monreal is not capable of covering alone). Wilshere and Ramsey’s ability to turn up all over the place in attack becomes a weakness when transposed into defence. Flamini, now 30, and never an imposing player, was always unlikely to be adequate cover for those around him.
The decision to piece these players together in this way doesn’t fit well into winning the league. It seemed to rely on one of two assumptions. Either Wenger expects his team to dominate Everton to the extent that he need not worry about anything Everton does. Or Wenger expects not to win the league this season and so continues to allow himself some whimsical team selections—the kind of purified ideological stuff that only someone who sees himself with little to lose can afford to bring into reality.
Or there’s another option. The self-indulgence involved in picking flimsy midfields keeps turning up because Wenger has forgotten the characteristics required to win big games. It’s not arrogance or idiocy, it’s what happens when you spend a long time—ten years since Arsenal last won the league—not expecting to win these kinds of games.
Ten years ago, when Wenger’s team was going through league seasons unbeaten, he was choosing a central midfield from Edu, Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira. Evidently, it worked. From what he’s said all summer, and what’s he done so far this season, Wenger now believes in teams without that powerful midfield presence. The midfielders he’s set out to protect his defence are Mikel Arteta, Flamini and Wilshere, none of whom combines strength, pace and size in the way that Edu, Gilberto and Vieira did.
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So, in the time Wenger has spent competing for fourth rather than first, he seems to have convinced himself that size and strength doesn’t matter. He seems to have forgotten that it definitely does.
Perhaps he sees Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona work without a player in midfield who fits the mold I’ve described and justifies his thinking that way. Some of the best teams in the world aren’t rigidly attached to having one type of player in their midfield and they do alright. But this would be odd thinking at best.
A few teams get away with what Wenger has tried to get away with because they have extreme qualities elsewhere. Real has the most expensively constructed side in history—all of its players have the kind of physiques which allow you to become the most valuable players in the world. It will never be bullied, regardless of how it sets up. Barcelona keeps the ball better than any side in history has, so it requires less consideration of how the opposition will operate. Bayern combines the qualities of both of those sides. And, by the way, none of these teams plays in the Premier League.
Arsenal, on the other hand, does not have access to these extremes and does play in the Premier League. It has a lot of good players, but it doesn’t exist outside of the normal rules like these teams might. So when it plays Everton away, it needs to consider what happens when the opposition has the ball. It needs to think about how open the Flamini-Ramsey-Wilshere axis appeared. Modern-day Wenger doesn’t seem to want to do that, or believe that he has to.
This kind of thinking mattered much less until this season—maybe that’s how it grew. Wenger could actually afford to indulge himself more in the wilderness years, when he didn't have money to spend, because whatever he did he didn’t have the players to win. Pragmatism wasn’t all that useful, so Wenger, understandably, became more comfortable with ideology. But now that he’s spent all summer spending big money and is capable of putting out a team of Ramsey, Ozil and Sanchez, incremental adjustments have started to mean more. He's close enough to the top for decisions to matter. Pragmatism, at this point, would be pretty handy again.
On Saturday, Arsenal needn’t have been pushed around by Everton. Wenger only had to decide to stop it happening. He has options and at this point they count for something. He can ask for more restraint from Ramsey and Wilshere in and out of possession. He can ask his full backs to sit deeper. He can move Ozil inside so that someone else does the chasing back. Or he can try to sign someone who won’t be bossed around by Gareth Barry.
All of these options require that the self-indulgence stop and that Wenger remembers how the Premier League got won the last time around. There needn't be any awkward position when playing Everton—Wenger has the tools to make it simple.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.