Arsenal's Problems Are Based on Recruitment, Not Tactics

James DudkoFeatured ColumnistNovember 10, 2014

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Tactics aren't to blame for Arsenal's terrible season. The problem is recruitment, specifically stocking up on enough attack-minded midfielders to stretch an unbalanced squad to breaking point.

That's why Arsene Wenger's team can't protect a lead; because the Gunners manager doesn't have the players to do it. That's why the Frenchman's legacy, which should focus on the many great achievements in his career, is slowly being reduced to tatters, because he's the one who's bought these players.

Wenger has helped create the unbalance at Arsenal by consistently signing inside forwards and advanced playmakers. This has left the north Londoners fatally short of players capable of doing the rugged, dirty work every team needs to succeed.

Arsenal couldn't hold the 3-2 lead up against Anderlecht, or 1-0 up against Swansea City, because defensive realities are an alien concept for the vast majority of Wenger's players.

How can any midfield featuring Santi Cazorla, Jack Wishere, Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky be expected to adequately shield a defence? Every member of that group's natural instinct is to go forward.

This Arsenal team hasn't been built to defend.
This Arsenal team hasn't been built to defend.Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

That's why it was so surprising that many pundits, including ex-Gunner Paul Merson, speaking to Sky Sports, were so shocked when Arsenal surrendered leads in the last two games, per The Telegraph:

If I'm being honest I think they're tactically clueless. How you can be 3-0 up and attacking? This is not the first time, this happens a lot of times. It is absolutely clueless.

For me the manager's got to get a message on [to the players]. You're playing with international footballers, these are not little kids. These have played for their countries lots of times.

They've played in World Cups, they've played a lot of Premier League games. They're all bombing forward. If you know football you say 'right, let's stop here. Let's have two banks of four, let's leave two up front and we'll go from there. Let them break us down.

I bet you Jose Mourinho hasn't drawn too many games from being 3-0 up. That tells you everything.

Of course, the likes of Rosicky, Ramsey and Cazorla were upfield, that's their game. Why would you expect them to be anywhere else?

Players who are glorified No. 10s aren't the ones you turn to if you need to protect a lead. That's like complaining about the paintwork in your house because the plumber you hired to paint the walls didn't do a good job.

Arsenal's litany of forward-thinking schemers are rarely in defensive positions but frankly wouldn't know what to do even if they were. It would be pointless for Wenger to get instructions to Ramsey, Cazorla et al to drop back, and Merson's reference to Mourinho proves it.

This is where the argument against Arsenal's tactics comes off the rails. In the modern era of the cult of manager, the heat map and the Football Manager franchise, too many fans treat tactics as a magical fix-all.

To these fans, the right tactics can win any game, regardless of any gulf in class between two teams or any slings and arrows of fortune. So that pub team you're a member of should gleefully accept that invitation to play Barcelona.

Don't worry, you have nothing to fear at the Camp Nou. Because as long as your tactics are right, you, Big Dave and Baz can easily handle Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar Jr.

Back in the land of the living, the reality is that tactics are generally only as good as the players implementing them. That's why Arsenal can't defend leads without the players capable of doing it.

More importantly, tactics are dictated by the players tasked with putting a manager's thoughts into practice. Mourinho serves as the prime example of this.

The sycophants who treat Mourinho as if he's some sort of sorcerer would likely have you believe all of his players are perfectly tactically drilled, particularly when it comes to defensive responsibilities.

To listen to these people, it would be easy to believe Mourinho's players are akin to push-button robots, constructed by the Machiavelli-like genius in his laboratory, the place where the secrets to winning are distilled.

However, those with a soul recognise that Mourinho's teams are solid because he makes room for defensive-minded players. That's how his teams protect leads.

When Mourinho wants to preserve a result, he doesn't ask wing wizard Eden Hazard to be a second full-back or playmaker Cesc Fabregas to be a sweeper. Instead, he substitutes Hazard for a midfield destroyer such as John Obi Mikel. Or he sacrifices Fabregas or a striker for a third centre-back like Kurt Zouma.

That's how Mourinho has always done it. It's how he's always done it because he has the players for that task.

Where are those players in this Arsenal squad? Where is the Mikel to augment the rugged stinginess already provided by Nemanja Matic and Ramires?

The Gunners don't have a Matic or Ramires, let alone a Mikel. Instead, Wenger's failures of recruitment mean that a player like Rosicky or even Wilshere, No. 10s by nature, enter games late on. Neither one is ever likely to tighten things up.

What the Gunners need, and have needed for far too long, is a solid base to begin with. This squad certainly doesn't have it.

That point was once again pressed home in depressingly costly fashion when Swansea equalised in a game the Welsh side eventually won 2-1. Speaking on BBC's MOTD2, ex-Arsenal defender Martin Keown broke down the problem.

First, Keown began with the numbers in forward areas:

At 1-0 up, with 15 minutes to go, when they should have been solid, they committed too many players forward.

There were seven Arsenal players ahead of the ball in the opposition's third of the pitch when Swansea broke away to win the free-kick from which Gylfi Sigurdsson scored their equaliser.

Five of those players were strikers Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, joined by attacking midfielders Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla. None of these players have the instincts for rearguard action.

For that, Wenger would need to bring on a natural holding player. That's not an option with Wilshere, Rosicky and forwards Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski on the bench.

What the Gunners needed to have a chance of surviving this attack was sound positional sense from their lone and supposed defensive midfielder. But as Keown noted, Mathieu Flamini provided nothing of the sort:

That free-kick came about after Modou Barrow ran straight down the middle of the pitch before being brought down when Gibbs had no choice but to foul him on the edge of the Arsenal area.

But the reason Barrow could do that was because Mathieu Flamini had moved out of central midfield to challenge Sigurdsson and try to win the ball.

Flamini did not need to do that - he just needs to occupy that central area of the pitch.

If you do that, then the opposition do not even bother trying to run into that area. But, when they can see holes and gaps, they run into them.

Flamini should have passed that player on. Instead, he vacated his area and did not have the pace to recover.

Flamini showed here what he often shows. Namely, the reckless style of a player who is very willing but wildly undisciplined. This should come as no surprise.

Flamini was the same during his first stint at Arsenal from 2004-08. His performances during his final season, as an alleged foil alongside an irrepressible Fabregas, were greatly exaggerated.

Had Wenger trusted "Invincibles" veteran Gilberto Silva more, then perhaps the best Arsenal team of the Emirates Stadium era would have collected the Premier League title it deserved.

However, past is past. To lament every trophyless season during the Wenger reign is a pointless and increasingly long exercise. You might as well bemoan the three seasons without silverware following the 1997/98 double.

Football is about what's current, and currently Mikel Arteta is the only midfield player in the whole squad with the temperament and savvy to protect the back four. It's no coincidence that Arsenal have surrendered two leads since Arteta hobbled off injured against Anderlecht, a fact Wenger noted, per Arsenal.com:

I think when we lost Mikel Arteta we lost out because he was one of the few who defended well. That didn't help. Apart from that maybe we underestimated subconsciously Anderlecht and got punished. In the Champions League you need to be at the mental level or you get punished and certainly we were not.

Arteta is often wrongly a derided figure. But maybe now some fans will begin to realise and appreciate his value to this team.

The 32-year-old Spaniard is far from the athletic and powerful force(s) in the middle this team needs to seriously compete. But he is the closest thing this squad has to a holding player.

That's a failure of recruitment on Wenger's part, not one of tactics. Keown helped make that clear via his final condemnation of the Swans' equaliser:

It is not all his fault, though. To an extent, the centre-halves should have communicated that they wanted protection.

Whoever I played with in the centre of defence for Arsenal, my partner and I would have the adage that, the more players do in front of us, the less we do.

So our aim was always to get that barricade in position, and keep it there.

Under Arsene Wenger, in the Arsenal team I played in, the likes of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit would not have vacated midfield in the manner Flamini did.

Keown's final words strike at the heart of things. There is no Patrick Vieira or Emmanuel Petit in this squad. There's no Silva, Edu or Ray Parlour.

Instead, there is merely a clutch of players all seeking glory in forward areas, all wanting to be playmaker, all wanting to play No. 10. It takes more than mere tactical instruction to solve that problem, although Wenger has tried.

He tried after the Anderlecht capitulation, when he publicly and pointedly challenged Ramsey to work more at both ends of the pitch, per BBC.co.uk:

It's not about goal-scoring. Goal-scoring is a consequence of playing well first so focus on playing well.

You have to keep your priorities right as a midfielder, defend well and attack well and give good goals to the other players.

Based on Ramsey's performance against Swansea, those words fell on deaf ears. But it's not as if Wenger hasn't made Arsenal more solid when he's had to at times during his career.

He certainly did it during the run-in for the 2012/13 campaign. After being weak defensively for most of the season, Arsenal won eight and drew two of the club's final 10 league games.

In the process, the Gunners were only breached five times and kept as many clean sheets. Single-goal wins over Fulham, Queens Park Rangers and Newcastle United weren't pretty, but Arsenal were solid and compact.

Earlier that campaign, Wenger frequently introduced Thomas Vermaelen or Carl Jenkinson to help play five at the back to protect a lead. That's the type of thing Merson and the members of the Mourinho bandwagon regularly swoon over when Chelsea do the same.

There are other more notable examples of Wenger going on the defensive when he's needed to. Most famously, he admitted as much after the Gunners outlasted Manchester United to win the 2004/05 FA Cup, per Matt Law of The Telegraph: "We did not deserve to win, it was the only way we could win it. At the start, I didn't set up like that and suddenly Manchester United were all over us and I realised that physically we were not able to compete, so I said, 'OK let's defend as long as we can'."

Wenger also used a defensive 4-5-1 formation to help Arsenal reach the UEFA Champions League final in 2005/06. In the process, the Gunners conceded just one goal along the way.

Wenger needs this kind of commitment to defensive resolve again in order to salvage this season. But he won't find it easy convincing this squad to change its spots.

In some instances he shouldn't have to. Against Swansea, young right-back Calum Chambers was tormented by winger Jefferson Montero, per Mail Online reporter Riath Al-Samarrai.

This shouldn't be too much of a surprise. Montero is a talented wide attacker, while Chambers is an enthusiastic but still extremely raw defender.

What was surprising was how little help he received from Arsenal's winger, Chamberlain. The former Southampton prospects are close friends in this Gunners squad, yet Chambers received no help.

Do these players really need a cue from Wenger for Chambers to say, "Hey Alex, help me out." Does Chamberlain really need Wenger to yell that Montero is causing trouble down the same flank he's operating from? Can he not see that for himself and react?

If the players need this much instruction, then maybe Arsenal should think about investing in a few of those push-button robots. The real issue is a team bloated with players more concerned with attacking and less inclined to defend.

That's a problem of Wenger's own making, one with its roots in the last three transfer windows. The Gunners could have signed Victor Wanyama, Geoffrey Kondogbia or Luiz Gustavo during the summer of 2013.

Arsenal were interested in Wanyama, according to Jeremy Wilson of The Telegraph. Wenger was also reportedly keen on Gustavo, per David Hytner of the Guardian. Meanwhile, Italian website TuttoMercato.com (h/t Express writer Ben Jefferson) suggested Wenger was ready to bid for Kondogbia.

Instead, Gustavo joined Wolfsburg for £17 million, Kondogbia signed with Monaco for €20 million, while Southampton bought Wanyama for £12.5 million.

Any one, or preferably two, of that trio would have gone a long way to solve Arsenal's weakness against counter-attacks, as well as the squad's lack of muscle and poor defensive depth.

But at the same time three perfect targets were being acquired for relatively bargain fees, Wenger spent £42.5 million on Mesut Ozil. The languid playmaker joined a squad that already featured Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosicky and Cazorla.

This summer, instead of pushing through a deal for a natural centre-back, or putting together a package good enough to lure a top defensive midfielder, Wenger again focused on attack.

He used £16 million to sign Welbeck, another forward, on deadline day. This was after spending close to £35 million to add Sanchez to an attack already featuring Theo Walcott, Yaya Sanogo, Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Joel Campbell.

Looking at the makeup of this Arsenal squad, is it any wonder the Gunners can't hold leads? No amount of finely tuned tactics are suddenly going to imbue Ramsey, Cazorla, Wilshere, Chamberlain and company with the defensive nous to balance and protect the forward flair.

The defeat in Swansea was ample proof of that. Arsenal played out a cagey, rather ugly first half because they were tactically more cautious.

But that was in a goalless game. Once the Gunners had the lead, Wenger's advanced creative aces didn't have the savvy or physical attributes to preserve it.

Arsenal's season has been terrible and Wenger is justifiably under pressure. But the blame doesn't lie with tactics. Instead, it belongs with the players Wenger consistently signs, as well as those he frequently ignores, during transfer windows.