Although Leicester City finished the 2015/16 season as Premier League champions, it’s difficult to suggest they had a stronger squad than Arsenal. It’s therefore probable that Arsenal’s shortcomings were primarily strategic.
If the Gunners are to recover and challenge for the title next season, they will need to make a number of tactical changes to their squad—right through the spine of the team.
That process of tactical evolution began last season, when Arsene Wenger showed a ruthless side by dropping Per Mertesacker from the team. Mertesacker is a good organiser and fantastic asset in the air, but he has a glaring weakness in his game: a lack of pace.
That can prove problematic when Wenger chooses to play with a high line. In some of their best performances last season, Arsenal began matches by pressing from the front with the defence deployed relatively high up the field. However, that can leave Mertesacker exposed against strikers with speed. There was one notable calamitous instance when he was sent off for dragging back Chelsea's Diego Costa, who is not even particularly quick.
Gabriel Paulista is the obvious alternative, and he’s certainly faster than the German. However, there is a trade-off in fielding the Brazilian, who lacks Mertesacker’s positional awareness and aura of calm. Where Gabriel goes, chaos can follow. Indeed, he too was sent off in a match against Chelsea after a petulant flick at Costa.
Those incidents succinctly illustrate the major flaws in each player’s game.
The solution may be to buy a superior centre-half to partner Laurent Koscielny. Arsenal have already been linked with Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly by Jeremy Wilson of the Daily Telegraph, and the 25-year-old Senegal international certainly seems to have the athleticism required to function effectively within Arsenal’s system.
A high line has been integral to some of Wenger’s greatest sides and should be part of his plans next season.
Wenger has already made a move in the transfer market to help solve some of the tactical issues in his midfield. Here his challenge is to find a cohesive partnership.
For the first few months of last season, Arsenal had one in the pairing of Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla. Throughout the calendar year of 2015, that unlikely duo dovetailed brilliantly. However, when injury interrupted that partnership in November, Arsenal embarked on a number of failed experiments as Wenger sought to restore balance to the midfield.
By the end of the campaign, Wenger had tried Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey, Mathieu Flamini and January signing Mohamed Elneny in a variety of different combinations.
In truth, not one of the various configurations was particularly convincing. That’s probably what prompted Wenger to sign Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka in May.
Xhaka seems well-placed to take over from Mikel Arteta, who retired from football this summer to take up a coaching post with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Although he was largely absent through injury last season, prior to that, Arteta was a disciplined distributor at the base of the Arsenal midfield.
Xhaka shares the Spaniard’s ability to pick a pass from deep but also has a more robust physicality that should enable him to act as an enforcer as well as a playmaker.
Wenger will hope Xhaka is able to help bring the best out of Ramsey. The Welshman flourished alongside Arteta in 2013/14 and stands to benefit from Wenger's decision to recruit a similar style of player. After Ramsey’s outstanding showing at Euro 2016 this summer, one of Wenger’s biggest tactical conundrums surrounds finding a way to get the best out of the former Cardiff City man.
Ramsey would ideally play as an attacking midfielder. With Wales, he is liberated to join up with the frontmen whenever he desires. However, at Arsenal, the privilege of the free role resides with Mesut Ozil. Ramsey must instead be accommodated at the base of the midfield. It will be fascinating to see whether he and Xhaka can strike up an understanding that allows both players to thrive.
As well as reorganising his midfield, Wenger may have to restructure his attack. In the second half of last season, Arsenal finally found some attacking cohesion when they introduced Danny Welbeck to the starting lineup. His speed and movement brought some much-needed variety to Arsenal’s approach play.
Unfortunately, Welbeck is set to miss the majority of next season with another knee injury. Wenger must try to recapture what the England international brought to the side by some other means.
For the past few seasons, Arsenal have tended to play with Olivier Giroud as their central striker. Although he is a highly capable player, he suffers from the same crucial flaw as Mertesacker. That means he does not offer much of a threat in behind, forcing Arsenal to try to play their way beyond defences with a series of intricate passes.
A quicker striker could make the Gunners less predictable. Although Arsenal have a reputation for possession football, some of their best showings in 2015/16 came when they transitioned quickly from one end to the other. Their 3-0 victory over Manchester United in October 2015 was a great example of what Arsenal can do when they adopt a more direct style.
Who exactly should take Welbeck’s place is a matter of some debate. As in defence, Wenger has the option of entering the transfer market. However, he may feel there are players already in his squad who could prove to be viable options through the middle. Although Theo Walcott’s form tailed off dramatically toward the end of last season, Wenger may feel he can still coax a prolific streak out of the erratic forward.
Alternatively, perhaps he’ll be tempted to give Alexis Sanchez another go in the centre. The Chilean played there in his first few Arsenal appearances before settling into a role on the flank, but he has all the raw attributes required to lead the line. The question is whether he has the positional discipline and tactical intelligence to match.
With Giroud set to miss the start of the season after his exertions at the Euros, Wenger must use pre-season to help decide which player to formulate his forward line around.
Arsenal require tactical tweaks through the team. They need to find a way to safely play with a high defensive line and augment that with a meticulously balanced midfield. Furthermore, they need a man at the point of their attack with the speed to stretch defences.
If they can make those strategic shifts, they could find themselves among the title contenders next season.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout 2016/17. Follow him on Twitter here.