Disclaimer: I am prone to knee-jerk reactions, big whoop, I’m a fan. Sue me.
Trouble is afoot in the land of the Arsenal.
Once upon a time, Arsenalville was a magical place inhabited by the souls of elegant, retired footballers and dancing leprechaun strippers.
The streets were liberally decorated with red and white candy canes, and the dulcet tones of La Marseilles rang out over the loudspeakers.
Scrumptious, Dutch-baked goods were plentiful for over 15 years, until the baking drought of 2012 when they were replaced by escargots, which took a while to catch on but have now been embraced by the residents.
Daily football matches were held, around which knowledgeable, monocle-clad men in bow ties gathered to murmur their approval at the delightful beauty of the play, which was of course the focus of the games because who wants practicality when you’ve got looks? Not us, we cried.
Trophies are overrated anyway.
Admittedly, the town was ruled over by a crackpot, old English mayor in his 70s, but he didn’t really have much say in things. He was articulate—he left old sheriff Wenger to run the place, good as gold.
Good as gold my left buttock.
Trouble is afoot in Arsenalville. Things are happening—bad things, things we don’t like and don’t want, things that make us squirm and grimace.
La Marseilles has been silenced.
The leprechauns are no longer dancing. Or stripping.
The land of the Arsenal appears to be losing its mojo.
When I say mojo, I do actually have a specific in mind. For some years now, Arsenal have at least somewhat mitigated the conspicuous absence of concrete success through the solace offered by their splendid brand of attacking football.
The painful lack of trophies could be excused, we reasoned, by the integrity of their football: playing the game the way it is meant to be played.
Scoring goals were fully formed demonstrations of utter footballing excellence, which by their sheer creativity, invigorating team play and clinical finishing were worthy of silverware in and of themselves.
They were Arsenal: not the most practical team you’d ever see, perhaps—prone at times to trying to walk the ball into the back of the net when a shot couldn’t be bought for love or money, but when they were on, boy they were on.
Regretful though it may be, it appears that the current Arsenal team is not this Arsenal.
I have been repressing commentary on the lack of imagination and flair that the Gunners have displayed this season for some time, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that Arsenal’s main weakness this season has been an inability to create.
Splendid though Santi Cazorla is, the creative dependence that rests on his shoulders is overwhelming and from a tactical point of view easily identifiable.
If you were to take Andres Iniesta from Barcelona and plonk him into the Norwich side, he would never reach his current heights because the play would be so relentlessly focused through him.
Opposing teams would instantly identify him as the major (read: the sole) creative threat in the Norwich squad and would work incredibly hard to shut him down.
This might open up opportunities for the rest of the squad, you might say—you, handsome and educated reader, are 100 percent correct. But in order for opportunities to be crafted through space resulting from defensive focus on one player, there has to be another player creative enough to take advantage of that space.
This is where Arsenal is lacking. This is where they have lost their mojo.
Barcelona is a good analogy for my point.
Xavier "Xavi" Hernández i Creus is the metronome in that team. By default, the ball is passed to and distributed by him, and Xavi is a wonderfully creative passer of the ball with a range that means chances can be created from anywhere in the opposition’s half.
Andres Iniesta is also an excellent passer, but his most useful skills in Barca’s style are his agility, his first touch and his dribbling skills. He is similar to Cazorla in this capacity.
If the opposition dedicates two players to shutting down Cazorla, however, Arsenal have lost their one advanced player who is capable of creating chances by himself.
In contrast, if Iniesta falters or is shut down, space opens up for Lionel Messi, Alexis Sanchez, David Villa, Pedro Eliezer Rodríguez Ledesma or Cesc Fàbregas. These players have such high-level dribbling, passing and movement that they can create chances individually—which is to say, they are not dependent on Iniesta and Xavi to create something that they can finish.
There is no other elite team in Europe, and I use that term liberally with Arsenal, whose advanced wide players are solely "finishers."
This is the accusation I would level at Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott. They have their strengths: nobody is faster than Walcott, and few can finish like Podolski.
But they are limited. Neither possesses the dribbling skills to beat one, let alone two men. Neither has the vision or the passing nous or range to provide killer balls for Cazorla or Olivier Giroud to finish.
They play as strikers but limited strikers, whose purpose is to outrun and to put the ball in the back of the net. And in this day and age, that is simply not enough.
We are in an interesting age, which I think can be described as "Total(ly) Attacking Football." Like Total Football, the dominant tactical style of football today encourages fluidity and positional mutability—but this is more geared towards the attacking end than the defensive end.
A great striker on a great team must have the clinical instincts of a great finisher, the technical prowess of a great midfielder and some kind of distinguishing athleticism.
Let’s take a look at the greatest strikers in the world: Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimović.
Messi possesses superb dribbling skills and movement. He is incredibly agile and very quick and can, I suppose, finish.
Ronaldo is athletically transcendent: strong, fast and tireless. He is technically excellent, his dribbling and trickery are disgustingly good and he has a true goal scorer’s drive.
Ibrahimović is, like Maroune Fellaini, physically unplayable: so strong, quite fast, very big and deceptively agile. He is also technically excellent, has an outrageous goalscoring record and is a nice fellow into the bargain.
If by "nice fellow," you mean a tool-bag, nomadic old fart.
By contrast, Arsenal’s front three consists of Podolski, who is quite fast and a very good finisher; Walcott, who is very fast and quite a good finisher; and Giroud, who is very strong, very tall and a good finisher.
Don’t get me wrong. These three are all very fine players. I’ve sung their praises on a number of occasions.
The thing is, they don’t work. They don’t function in the roles in which they have been asked to function because they’re not that kind of player.
To his credit, Arsène Wenger has attempted to address the lack of attacking creativity, dispatching Aaron Ramsey in the advanced right position and, early in the season, Gervinho in the advanced left position.
Neither achieved what the manager hoped. Gervinho’s play is too erratic and panicky in the final third. While Ramsey has tried, and in some cases has played well, he has not suggested himself to be a game changer.
The return of Jack Wilshere to the Arsenal first team may serve to lessen the load on Cazorla somewhat, but reliance on the young Englishman is risky. He is still only 20, he is a box-to-box midfielder and Barca do not rely heavily on Thiago Alcântara to provide goals.
Though this may be a flawed comparison, and Wilshere undoubtedly has superb potential, placing as much weight on his performance as the Catalans do on Fabregas seems somewhat irresponsible.
The age of the attacking midfielder-cum-striker has dawned.
Chelsea have Marko Marin, Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Júnior and Fernando Torres. City have Samir Nasri, Sergio Agüero, David Silva and Carlos Tévez. United have that Dutchman, Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa, Nani and Antonio Valencia.
Even looking overseas, Bayern have Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry on the wings, with Thomas Mueller on the bench. Real Madrid have Juan Pablo Angel, Mesut Oezil, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
Not so long ago, these teams set a standard that Arsenal could compete with, if not eclipse. I worry that now this is not the case. I would love to be proved wrong by the current squad, but the uninventive play of recent weeks—and, really, of the season so far—leaves me dubious.
After the departures of van P_____, Alexandre Song and, as seems increasingly likely, Walcott, the Gunners will be left with more than 30 assists to fill.
Perhaps, to shamelessly blur sports, what Arsenal need right now is not a Kevin Durant or a Bill Russell. Perhaps what they need is a Steve Nash.
P.S. I would pay a large sum of money to hear Tommy Smyth-with-a-Y shout "Cazorla lays on a delicious dime for Giroud to power home!"