If you’ve listened to any Arsenal podcasts, read any fan sites, or watched any postgame punditry over the past few years, you’ve heard that Arsène Wenger’s refusal to buy a prime-age center back, an elite defensive midfielder, or a real striker is the reason why Arsenal never challenge for the Premier League title or make it beyond the Round of 16 in the Champions League.
This summer, the club fixed all of those problems. Arsenal have acquired 24-year-old Shkodran Mustafi, the center back that they’ve supposedly lacked for years. Former Borussia Monchengladbach playmaker Granit Xhaka has been brought in to add a greater passing range to the defensive midfield position, and Olivier Giroud now has greater competition in the form of a more mobile,Jamie Vardy–esque striker in Lucas Pérez.
But what if personnel wasn’t actually their biggest problem?
As José Mourinho has taunted in the past, Arsenal already have enough talent to win the Premier League trophy that’s eluded them since 2004. Last year’s squad contained many top-class creative players such as Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil and competent midfielders in Santi Cazorla and Mohamed Elneny, while Laurent Koscielny provided defensive consistency at the back. With such a talented team already, Arsenal’s main issue isn’t the players. It’s what their manager is asking them to do.
Ever since he first arrived in England in October of 1996, Wenger has wanted his team to play attractive, attacking football. “My worry is to do as well as I can with the team and to get them to play decent football so that people who come and pay for their tickets are not bored,” he said back in 2011. Last year, he added, “I believe big clubs have a responsibility to win but to win with style.”
Following what French journalist Philippe Auclair described as “collective improvisation” in his biography of legendary striker Thierry Henry, Arsenal play with an improvisational, near-positionless form in possession. The players are allowed to move freely off of the ball, often roaming between spaces in search of the next opening rather than staying in their positions and waiting for space to open.
For a team with Arsenal’s talent, this approach has some obvious benefits. Such a style gives the attack a layer of unpredictability, as the players are allowed to vary their positioning.
It can make for some beautiful football if the players link up effectively. When the midfielders are connected and spaced well in the final third, they’re able to create the alluring attacking combinations that Arsenal have become known for since Wenger’s arrival. With excellent final-third creators such as Ozil and Ramsey, the current version of the team often moves forward in dynamic and fluid patterns. Ozil may appear in the left channel one minute, and during the next attack, he’s popping up near the right sideline. It’s extremely difficult to score goals like these without fluid positioning, but no team can reasonably expect to score 80 improvisational goals in a season — and that’s Arsenal’s problem. It often seems like they’re trying to.