Watching Arsenal’s insipid 3-1 loss to a depleted Monaco at the Emirates I came to the realisation that Arsene Wenger will never win the Champions League with his current directives.
Tactically the elite managers of Europe have all gone past the Frenchman and Wenger’s stubbornness to alter his footballing philosophy continues to hurt the Gunners supporters that have remained faithful in his ways and supported him until now. Wednesday's catastrophe was painful déjà vu and urgent change is required to reinstate Arsenal to the top.
Arsenal clearly need defensive reinforcements, namely an assertive defensive midfielder capable of making good passes under pressure. They also clearly needed Theo Walcott in their starting line-up to offer width when they were on top during stages of the first half. But perhaps more pressing is that Wenger needs to swallow his pride and alter his tactics.
Wenger cannot simply play an open style of attacking football all the time and Arsenal would benefit from a change in tactics to compliment the skillset of their players.
By this I mean sitting back and protecting what is clearly a vulnerable back four. Blind Freddy can see that Per Mertesacker is slower than a wet week and needs to be guarded with team-mates close by! To do this Wenger needs to instruct his players to sit back, not exactly parking the Chelsea bus, but keep closer distances together between their lines. The defensive midfielder should imagine he is tied to a piece of string to both centre backs no more than 30m in length – that is the maximum he should be away from them.
These tactics must also come with a directive for the front five to work their socks off back, particularly those in wide positions. It is not acceptable for Mesut Ozil or Santi Cazorla to be dispossesed of possession and then stand shaking their heads. They need to be immediately on their bikes back to fight to win the ball back and taking their rest periods behind the ball not ahead of it. This way of applying themselves with the opposition have the ball ensures Arsenal would remain disciplined and hard-working – not gung-ho like Wednesday's capitulation.
Arsenal clearly also miss Mathieu Debuchy, but their tactics need to also revolve around their full-backs harnessing their cavalier natures. A full-back has a defensive responsibility first and foremost which they cannot ignore, and their willingness to remain back will actually create greater space for Walcott, Sanchez et. al. to utilise their speed to greatest effect. The full-backs can most certainly still get forward, but their instructions need to specify that they do so only when the ball in on their side of the pitch to ensure balance.
Further, the passing and off-the-ball movement which is ingrained in every player at Arsenal needs to be balanced better to ensure they catch opposition teams off guard.
Wenger loves to play ‘the beautiful game’ and it can create outstanding goals such as Jack Wilshere’s effort against Norwich last season, but there also needs to be an element of surprise to frighten opposition defences and force them to question whether they are sitting back or pushing forward.
Midfielders should be able to hoof it from time to time and take pot shots from long range to test goalkeepers, and Wenger needs to communicate this with his players. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin's goal clearly showed the benefit of getting a quick shot on target but Ozil’s shot that led to Olivier Giroud finishing at Crystal Palace last weekend further highlighted what can happen when pressure is put on goalkeepers.
Arsenal have had a soft spot for some time, with many opposition kicking them off the park or allowing the pressure to mount until they crack. It’s time Wenger either swallowed his pride and changed his tactics or handed the reigns to someone else driven by results rather than aesthetics. An Arsenal side with a great togetherness and spirit can win the Champion’s League in the near future but the current approach will not.