Grading Arsene Wenger's Tactical Decisions This Season
For some time, restive fans have been critical of the club's transfer activity, something dictated as much—or more—by Arsenal's well-publicised financial prudence than by Wenger's structuring of the team.
So the revered manager has often dodged criticism as the team's on-pitch fortunes have deteriorated over the past few years.
Until the 2012/13 season.
This season, Wenger's management has increasingly come under attack whenever Arsenal have hit roadblocks like their FA Cup and League Cup defeats at the hands of lower-league opposition.
Has something gone fundamentally wrong in Wenger's approach? Here's a breakdown of some of Wenger's key tactical decisions.
Wenger has stuck to a 4-2-3-1 system with essentially no variation this season.
It is the dominant formation of the Premier League this season, and Arsenal have been setting up this way fairly consistently since Cesc Fabregas' departure.
It generally suits the team's personnel, though most second-choice players put into the wide forward positions—Aaron Ramsey, Andrey Arshavin—have tended to struggle. This severely effects the effectiveness of squad rotation.
While consistently persevering with a clear-cut and familiar system should be an asset, that has not always prevented players from sometimes seeming confused about their roles. Again, this is not usually a problem with a full first-choice team but seems to rear its head with key absentees, like Mikel Arteta.
With the team essentially built around a 4-2-3-1, it would be difficult and of limited usefulness for Wenger to switch formations.
However, it wouldn't hurt to have a different system at his disposal to better accommodate necessary squad changes due to injury, suspension or rotation. And it would warm Gooner hearts to see their manager inject some of the old innovation he was once renowned for but seems to have lost somewhat.
Losing a player of Robin van Persie's quality would damage the best of teams, and Wenger's influence in that move is debatable at best, so let's concentrate on the transfers in.
Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla have largely delivered in their first Premier League season, and they are appropriate personnel for Wenger's system. Although Podolski could arguably perform better in the central forward role, his 12 goals and 10 assists so far this season prove his effectiveness on the left.
The January move for Nacho Monreal was a sensible reactive signing as Kieran Gibbs' fitness continues to be a concern and Andre Santos proved entirely unsuitable at left-back. The only problem apparent with Monreal is that he is cup-tied, leaving Thomas Vermaelen to deputise in the Champions League, where he struggled considerably against Bayern Munich.
Selection and Substitutions
Again, when the first-choice team have all been available, Wenger's selection has been fairly consistent.
But when he has made changes, it has tended to cause problems.
The last two high-profile losses have been fairly damning examples of Wenger not getting the selection right—and also failing to address the issue adequately with his substitutions.
Against Blackburn in the FA Cup, Wenger chose to rest key players for Tuesday's Champions League clash with Bayern Munich. The result cost Arsenal their one remaining realistic chance at silverware this season.
In theory, playing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right, Tomas Rosicky in Santi Cazorla's role and Gervinho on the left shouldn't by any means have been a massive gamble. The tepid individual performances cannot necessarily be blamed on the team fielded.
But questions must inevitably be asked about the decision to field a secondary team at all. Wenger certainly must have understood that what the FA Cup may lack in prestige, it makes up for in attainability for this Arsenal side.
In the event, Wenger wound up bringing on Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla anyway, hoping for a substitute-inspired turn-around like the one against Brighton in the previous round. The opposite occurred, as the team promptly conceded the winning goal while trying to adapt to the abrupt triple change.
Against Bayern, Wenger chose to start Walcott as the central striker, with Cazorla on the right, Podolski on the left and Ramsey in the centre. He played Wilshere deep alongside Arteta. The result was largely toothless, with Wilshere and Cazorla's dynamism compromised and Walcott going missing for large periods of the game, despite causing Bayern some trouble with his pace.
The team's ineffectiveness was highlighted when Wenger finally made an adjustment, putting substitute Giroud up front, Walcott back on the right and Rosicky on for Ramsey. The substitutions almost immediately resulted in Arsenal's best chance of the night.
Considering the sluggish first-half display, it would not have been a surprise had Wenger instituted these changes at the half—but he did not. Over-cautiously, he waited for the 72nd minute.
Overall, Wenger has not performed especially badly tactically this season. Glaring errors of judgment are few and far between, if uncomfortably damaging when they do occur. More questions might be asked of Wenger's man-management and training than basic tactics, as execution remains inconsistent and unpredictable.
Regardless, it's been a disappointing term for Le Professeur.
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