Maybe this Arsenal team isn’t so Arsenal after all?
Arsenal’s clinical victory over West Ham offered a promising vision of the future.
The dawn of the social media age has brought the bile and bitterness between rival football fans to an all-time high, but it wasn’t long ago that things were a little different. Instead of the weekly ridicule that now pours in at the depressing delights proffered by the ceaselessly astonishing Arsenal Fan TV — an online video channel that usually consists of tearful middle-aged men bickering after witnessing their beloved Gunners fritter away yet more points — there was a time when Arsenal elicited praise from neutrals and partisans alike. They played the game “the right way.”
That is, “right” enough for them to dominate winnable games and to qualify for the Champions League, but rarely “right” enough for them to actually win anything (and it’s difficult to find a team grotesquely objectionable or joyfully embarrassing without them celebrating with regular silverware or without watching adult supporters in tears at their demise). Over the last few seasons, Arsenal have had the occasional flirt with crisis and the even more occasional glimpse of silverware, but for the most part, they’ve been just … there. They’ve been a harmless, childlike team, who love to attack and can’t defend.
However, that cliché was put on hold for Sunday’s 2-1 victory away at West Ham, in which they turned in an unusually gutsy performance, sitting back and soaking up pressure in a match in which their soft centre would often have been exposed. That’s the same soft centre that has seen them garner their reputation as an innocuous, friendly bunch, incapable of offering a serious challenge for the Premier League’s big boys.
Time and again Arsenal have been undone by repetitive injury problems. Transfer window after transfer window they have failed to address gaping holes in their squad — their deficit of defenders, a complete lack of competent defensive midfielders. But arguably the most omnipresent of all of their issues has been their Wengerian tactics: often so easy on the eye, but inflexible enough for them to repeat the same mistakes match after match. Rarely do they sit back and soak up pressure, and as such, their opponents are always guaranteed to find space to attack on the break. It is a touchingly naïve approach, merely exacerbated by their patchy defence and flimsy midfield.
The trend has continued into this season, with the Gunners having thrown away 11 points from winning positions; manager Arsène Wenger seems unwilling or unable to sit back and cynically see out a game in the manner of football’s Master of the Dark Arts, José Mourinho.
However, in the victory over West Ham, things were different. Playing against a frighteningly effective team that have mixed brute force with a blistering tempo, Arsenal found themselves forced into sitting behind the ball for large portions of the game. It was partly through good fortune that they led 2-0 at halftime, with Santi Cazorla netting a penalty and Danny Welbeck a second minutes before the whistle, but it set up one of their most impressive displays of the season.
The Hammers came out and netted early in the second period, putting Arsenal on the back foot for the remainder of the game. But despite a barrage of crosses and shots, the Gunners held on, and should’ve killed the game off with a string of clinical counters led by the pacey trio of Welbeck, Alexis Sánchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Had they finished a little better, the Gunners would’ve been out of sight. It certainly wasn’t their prettiest win, and on the Wengerian scale of possessional domination it won’t rank very highly. But their profoundly unusual manner of victory can only be seen as a good thing.
The only downside for Arsenal supporters is that this is unlikely to be a lasting change. After nearly two decades of possession-based football at the Gunners, it’s unrealistic to expect Wenger to adopt a more efficient strategy now. For too long has he built teams on controlling the ball, seemingly not affording his side’s defence as much focus as its attack.
However, just because their manager can’t change his spots, it doesn’t mean Arsenal won’t be able to. They have young, quick attackers who would relish being able to attack space on the break, while their comparably weak defence would benefit from the added protection that a more conservative strategy would yield.
Years of average finishes have led to the belief that Arsenal are miles from becoming a Premier League contender, but it wouldn’t take all that much for them to become a clinical counter-attacking force. Perhaps they’ll have to wait for Wenger to leave before they finally realise it, but playing the game the wrong way is exactly Arsenal’s route forward.