Arsene Wenger Must Add Balance and Pace to Arsenal This Summer

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2014

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  Arsene Wenger manager of Arsenal looks on a Kieran Gibbs of Arsenal heads down the tunnel after being shown a straight red during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on March 22, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

He won't be able to do anything about it this season. But if Arsene Wenger is still around to bridge the gap between Arsenal and the top sides in the English Premier League, he must add balance and pace to his squad this summer.

The absence of either quality was at the root of the recent 6-0 thrashing by Chelsea. Jose Mourinho's players were simply too fast and strong for Wenger's charges.

Arsenal had already had their warning when Liverpool destroyed them 5-1 at Anfield in early February. Then it was Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling exposing the Gunners with speed up front, while Jordan Henderson and Coutinho outran them in midfield.

That the same thing happened at Stamford Bridge was inevitable given how this Arsenal squad has been constructed. Wenger has rebuilt his way into something of a tactical cul-de-sac.

The chief problem is there are too many players with similar styles. Arsenal are overloaded with small midfield schemers.

These players do their best work in advanced areas and are only quick when leading an attack. There is no energy and defensive discipline to cover ground and fill gaps. 

That explains why Arsenal's defence was so often exposed by Chelsea, who specialize in breaking at speed and usually funnel their counters through the middle. The likes of Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can't stand up physically or athletically to players like Andre Schurrle, Eden Hazard and Nemanja Matic.

Arsenal are too easily overpowered in the biggest games.
Arsenal are too easily overpowered in the biggest games.Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Wenger hasn't balanced the skill and flair of his current midfield with enough complementary strength. Similar imbalance is evident in the other two phases of the team.

Defensively, Arsenal are rugged and smart, but both Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny lack the pace and agility to blend with their toughness.

Mourinho was blunt about his plan to exploit this flaw in Arsenal's centre-back partnership, according to David Wright of the Sunday Express:

We know also that the full-backs, normally they are wide and up, leaving the two central defenders isolated.

They are not the fastest guys on the pitch and we knew that by recovering the ball and attacking spaces we could score.

In attack, Olivier Giroud offers aerial strength and muscle but isn't quick enough to stretch any back four.

The biggest mistake Wenger has made this season, and indeed during Arsenal's barren run, has been assembling unbalanced squads.

It didn't used to be this way. The Frenchman's trophy-winning Arsenal teams all had the right amount of flair, power and pace.

Rediscovering that formula must be the priority for Wenger this summer. Even if it means making some tough choices regarding existing players.

He has to start by adding some genuine athleticism at the heart of the Gunners' midfield. This team needs a powerful, energetic midfield linchpin or two if it is ever going to compete against the best.

Fortunately, there are players reportedly already on Wenger's radar who fit the bill. Bayer Leverkusen talisman Lars Bender continues to be a target, per Daily Mail writer Sami Mokbel.

Germany international Lars Bender is a player Wenger could pursue this summer.
Germany international Lars Bender is a player Wenger could pursue this summer.Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

So does resourceful Southampton ace Morgan Schneiderlin, according to Metro reporter Jamie Sanderson. Both players can give Arsenal the power in the middle of the park, which used to be Wenger's trademark.

Mikel Arteta alone cannot offer the required support; nor can Mathieu Flamini. Without a more solid platform in the middle, Arsenal will never earn the right to play against the strongest opposition.

It is also time for Wenger to abandon the idea of playing Jack Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain in deeper roles. The young England internationals are both more comfortable moving forward, but maybe there should be no room for them there either.

All three of Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey merit being picked ahead of Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain on a regular basis.

It's also possible Wenger can make room for only two of Ozil, Ramsey and Cazorla. Overloading the team with like-minded creators has been necessary this season but hasn't worked in the biggest games.

Having too many forward-thinking players has left Arsenal fatally unbalanced in this season's toughest games.
Having too many forward-thinking players has left Arsenal fatally unbalanced in this season's toughest games.Michael Regan/Getty Images

Wenger's desire to dominate possession has been undermined when his best ball-players have been missing. That has been obvious during the last two matches, when a team supposedly built to own the ball hasn't been able to string three passes together without a mistake.

The reason is simple: With Ramsey and Ozil nursing injury, Wenger has turned to Rosicky and Chamberlain. Both are better suited to a counter-attacking game.

They do their best work breaking forward, as they did in the 1-0 away win over Tottenham Hotspur. But when tasked with keeping the ball and passing their way through, as they were at Chelsea, Arsenal's possession game stalls.

The same problem is true with Lukas Podolski, a natural counter-attacking weapon but no possession player.

At the moment, this is a team caught between two identities. Wenger's desire to win via technically proficient combination play is at odds with the quick-breaking strengths of many of his players.

The 4-1 FA Cup quarter-final hammering of Everton provided the template for this particular team but bizarrely has not been followed since, at least willingly.

Injuries have undoubtedly played their part. Put Ozil, Ramsey and Theo Walcott on the field and Arsenal could combine creative intricacy with sudden breaks. But while that would make them more flexible in attack, the Gunners wouldn't necessarily be more prolific. They won't be until Wenger adds more pace to the forward line.

Newcastle United forward Loic Remy would do that. The on-loan Queens Park Rangers star is anxious for a move to Arsenal, per Daily Mirror reporter Alan Oliver.

Loic Remy boasts the pace Wenger must add to the Arsenal attack.
Loic Remy boasts the pace Wenger must add to the Arsenal attack.Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Remy would be a steal as a player capable of matching Walcott's speedy runs and possessing far more guile in front of goal than the often hapless Giroud.

If Wenger still wants a bullish presence to anchor the attacking line, then a proposed move for Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic makes perfect sense. The Gunners have even met with the Croatia international's agent, according to Italian journalist Gianluca Di Marzio.

But even two new strikers won't be enough if Arsenal's midfield remains unbalanced.

Whether he plays three or four in midfield, Wenger needs central players athletic and savvy enough to fill defensive gaps. He must find players who will track forward-breaking runners, fill in when Arsenal's full-backs raid forward and help keep things in front of Mertesacker and Koscielny.

Those demands require skilled, hardworking athletes.

Accommodating two such players, even if it means dropping Wilshere, Chamberlain and even Ramsey or Cazorla, is vital to Arsenal bridging the gap between themselves and the elite teams.

If Wenger doesn't balance his squad with quicker, more powerful athletes this summer, Arsenal won't be strong enough to last the pace in next season's title race.


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