Arsene Wenger risks giving Manchester United an easy ride back into the Premier League’s top four with his tactical tinkering at Arsenal and a lack of early momentum should worry fans of the north London club.
One man epitomises the malaise the Gunners are currently going through; Mesut Özil is bearing the brunt of dissatisfaction with the decisions being made by his manager.
Borussia Dortmund completely outclassed Arsenal in their first Champions League group game of this season at the Westfalenstadion on Tuesday night and Özil’s performance was possibly his worst since moving to Emirates Stadium last summer in a £42million deal.
Blame shared, but not equally
Blame must be shared for the dismal hour he spent on the pitch against the far superior Bundesliga side, but it is hard not to lay most of that on Wenger, with the Frenchman seemingly ignoring his star man’s shortcomings.
Whether he was on the right or the left of the 4-1-4-1 formation now being deployed by the French tactician, Özil looked short of options, confidence and inspiration, as he continually passed the ball back or was crowded out by the incredibly hard-working Dortmund players.
Wenger obviously feels that Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere provide more drive and protection in the middle of the pitch, but his failure to relegate Özil to the bench seems odd in the face of his preference for the British pair.
The Germany international is not, and never has been, a winger. He is clearly Arsenal’s best passer of the ball in the final third and is at his best when playing behind the striker, or in the centre of that second bank of four.
Defensively he has never been the greatest and sticking him out wide where he is required to shuttle up and down to protect his full-back seems to sap the energy he would normally use to provide quick darts from a central position out wide, where he is adept at picking passes or creating overlaps.
With him being so ineffective defensively being known to Wenger (surely, he must?), the decision to place Özil in front of 19-year-old Hector Bellerin on his full debut for the first team appears almost cruel.
Danny Welbeck had two good chances to score in the match and squandered both, but the most worrying thing about his performance was the lack of cohesion he had with teammates.
Alexis Sancez will always run hard and work for the team, but the incessant pressing from Dortmund left little time and space for him to work in and Arsenal generally looked toothless – that they managed a single shot on target in the entire game is embarrassing.
Rivals to capitalise?
While the Gunners were toiling in Germany, Manchester United players were relaxing with their partners at a meal for much of the squad, getting a good rest ahead of their weekend trip to Leicester City.
Louis van Gaal’s team will be buoyed after things finally clicked for them in the 4-0 dismantling of QPR last weekend and the Old Trafford boss will be confident he can build on that result.
Liverpool felt the benefit of only playing Premier League football last season, there was less pressure on tired and injured players and gave them a whole week to prepare for their next opponents.
Brendan Rodgers’ side ended up finishing second, while Manchester United have a far superior playing squad and a proven world-class manager on top of it – their ‘doing a Liverpool’ could be even more successful than their rivals at Anfield.
After last season’s disastrous campaign, momentum is going to be crucial for the Red Devils; they will have to erase the bad memories, the second-guessing when under pressure, and come out all guns blazing to fire themselves back into the Champions League spaces.
Arsenal were fortunate last season in that Liverpool’s rise and Manchester United’s decline meant they were still able to hang onto their familiar fourth place, but an emerging force from Old Trafford could see them finally lose their grip.
If it happened this season it would possibly the worst of all after last season felt like a step forward in terms of progress for the Gunners.
Winning their first trophy in nine years, at least making some kind of title challenge and following up the record signing of Mesut Özil with the big-money transfer of Alexis Sanchez.
All of this conspired to create a sense of optimism around the club for this season that had not been there in a long time, but early signs are suggesting Wenger has failed to capitalise on it.
Not having the resilience to hold onto a lead against a top team when a win looked on the cards and being utterly dismantled away from home against a similarly elite club because of tactical naivety feel like familiar shortcomings.
Not all doom and gloom
However, fans may also be advised to be cautious of becoming too despondent with the Gunners current predicament, as this is not the first time Wenger has seen his side make a sluggish start to a league campaign.
They have recovered in the past and the criticisms being thrown at them are perhaps not as serious as we have made out. First off, Welbeck’s failure to take the small number of decent chances he has had is disappointing, though that can easily be improved and he should be presented with more chances as he gets to know his teammates better.
Özil doesn’t particularly like playing out wide, but he is an intelligent player and will eventually work out a way to make it work – his long summer must also be considered and perhaps Wenger needs to give him a rest sometime soon.
The forward line has a number of new players and they will need games to get to know the quirks of their new colleagues before they can really fire. All new formations take time to bed in and the Gunners may just be experiencing some teething problems, rather than it being an abortive experiment.
Although you cannot view a record of two wins in the seven the seven competitive games they have played so far and not be worried about the season ahead.
Wenger’s problems in defensive midfield have not eased, with both Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini looking well short the requisite level needed from a player in that position for the kind of level the Gunners are aiming for.
A trip to Aston Villa this weekend should be a stern test of Arsenal’s mettle after the midweek disappointment, as Paul Lambert’s side have started the season in terrific form.
Defensively sound and threatening at set-pieces, Villa sound like the antithesis of where Wenger’s side are at the moment and getting a much-needed three points is going to be a hard task.
History says trust Wenger to turn early form around, but his formation tinkering with so many new players could be about to let Manchester United and Liverpool an easy ride back into the Premier League’s top four.