LONDON — The surprise, perhaps, is not that Arsenal is out of the Barclays Premier League title race but that it was in it for so long. Certainly there was nothing on that opening Saturday of the season, when it was well-beaten 3-1 by Aston Villa, to suggest that a title challenge was possible. That was a day of rancor, when the Emirates booed and bristled with sheets of paper demanding that Arsene Wenger should "spend, spend, spend." The boos were back on Tuesday as Arsenal drew with Swansea City. Wenger has spent, but probably not enough, while fundamental tactical issues have not been addressed.
Arsenal’s problem against Villa was that Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, neither particularly deft on their feet, were left unprotected, allowing Gabriel Agbonlahor and Christian Benteke in particular to run at them. It’s a relatively simple issue, and one that can be addressed either by the use of an out-and-out holding player to operate, as the former Dynamo Kyiv coach Viktor Maslov liked to term it, as a breakwater, or by ensuring the structure of the side is compact enough front to back that the central defenders are not left isolated.
Wenger has, in the past, tried a high defensive line to try to achieve that compactness, but in recent times his sides never seem to have been able to couple that with the sort of coherent midfield pressing that is necessary to prevent opponents catching it out with simple balls over the top (there are numerous examples, but Agbonlahor’s goal in Villa’s 2-0 win at the Emirates in November 2008 feels iconic in that regard). This time, he brought in Mathieu Flamini.
He was only a free transfer from AC Milan, and so at first Mesut Ozil, signed for $72 million from Real Madrid, captured most of the attention, particularly as he began the season well. But Flaminiâs role was vital. Or so it seemed. Then, mystifyingly, Wenger left him out for three crucial games — away at Bayern Munich, away at Tottenham and away at Chelsea. Arsenal was a little fortunate to draw the first 1-1, might have struggled if Tottenham had had some wit to go with its energy and desire, and then was thrashed at Chelsea. Even after Tuesday’s disappointing 2-2 draw against Swansea — itself at least in part the result of a hangover from Saturday — Arsenal’s record in the league in games in which Flamini has played at least 45 minutes is 12-2-1; in games when he has not it is 7-4-5.
Presumably the switch from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazorla flanking Mikel Arteta, was presumably made to try to encourage better use of the ball when Arsenal was in possession. Oxlade-Chamberlain, itâs true, made dangerous forward bursts against Bayern and Spurs. But if holding the ball better was the aim, it failed desperately against Tottenham, with Arsenal registering just 41% possession, its lowest figure of the season. Not only that, but without the central creator, Olivier Giroud, whose form has slipped significantly since the early part of the season, looked hopelessly isolated, chugging vainly about for the final 80 minutes at Stamford Bridge, wondering if the ball would ever come to him.
Playing the extra deeper midfielder probably played into Chelsea’s hands — something Wenger tacitly acknowledged when he said he took "full responsibility" for the defeat. Jose Mourinho gleefully explained afterwards that he knew that Arsenal don’t like sides who press it high up the pitch, preventing it building from the back, and that his plan was to harass from the start. "We came to kill," he said. "And we crushed them." The third deep midfield only encouraged a sense of ponderousness, one Chelsea exploited ruthlessly: each of the first five Chelsea goals came from an Arsenal player squandering possession chiefly — something that also probably says much about its mental state.
The danger of being caught in possession, of course, is a perennial one for teams who favor the sort of patient build-up Arsenal do. But that’s where the coverage of Wenger’s 1000th game in charge revealed an oddity. Wenger is painted as an idealist, somebody who insists on winning on his terms, and there is something laudable about that, particularly given the financial restrictions he has been operating under. But his terms have changed. Arsenal used to have power and pace; Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, Gilberto Silva, Fredrik Ljungberg come to mind. It used to be as rapid and direct in transition as anybody, but now Wenger seems intent on curating the world’s greatest collection of neat, tidy and imaginative but slow passers. It’s not a matter of finance, as the capture of Ozil shows: it’s a matter of taste.
And that really is the biggest question if — and given the unfulfilled promises of the past few years it is a major if — Wenger has a huge budget to spend in the summer. Can he still use it to create a side that has the cohesion, balance and power to compete? Only time will tell.