Arsène Wenger leaves behind a curious legacy at Arsenal.
On the one hand he is their most successful manager of all time and has helped shaped the club’s identity in the modern era. Before his appointment, they were known for a rigid, steely defence and “1-0 to the Arsenal”. But Wenger has instilled a sense of adventure, wonder and entertainment.
That, of course, has had its drawbacks with Arsenal fans among the most expectant and, dare we say, entitled in the country. But Wenger has defined what the Gunners stand for in the 21st century and his successor will be entrusted with maintaining that.
However, by outstaying his welcome he has also left behind a series of long-term problems that he either tried and failed to fix, or just ignored altogether through his legendary stubbornness and admirable commitment to his ideals.
Whoever the new man may be – Mikel Arteta have all been linked– they will be faced with an acute set of issues which they will have to find solutions for if Arsenal are to regain their place in the Premier League and Champions League elite.
The search for steel
The genesis of Wenger’s reign was in-part built on the foundations provided by Patrick Vieira and then Gilberto Silva. Both provided the Gunners with a sense of defensive security to add to the flair further forward. Try as he might, he has consistently struggled to find suitable replacements.
Abou Diaby’s untimely injury problems unfortunately robbed him of potentially his next-great defensive midfielder but since Alex Song’s purple patch at the start of the decade, it’s been a problem position.
Arteta, Emmanuel Frimpong, Francis Coquelin and Mathieu Flamini have been used with mixed results with Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny the current incumbents, but little has changed to suggest the new manager should maintain the trend.
There is a case of mistaken identity with the latter duo as neither is anywhere near a midfielder cast in the Vieira mould (which is a pretty unfair comparison to make given just how good and unique the Frenchman was).
Both are deep-lying ball-playing continuity midfielders who keep hold of the ball and dictate tempo. Xhaka leads the Premier League in total touches (3,337) while his touches per 90 minutes (103.3) and Elneny’s (97.55) – the Egyptian having played 2,306 less minutes – aren’t that far apart.
But neither provides much production in an attacking sense: Xhaka’s six league assists this season are almost double his expected assists (xA) of 2.73 while his xA per 90 is an insignificant 0.08. Elneny’s direct creativity has been minimal, one assist and an overall xA of 0.76 with his xA per 90 the same as his Swiss team-mate.
Defensively, Xhaka is making 2.1 tackles per 90 and Elneny 1.2 which ranks them 43rd and 82nd in the Premier League among central midfielders. While in terms of possession intercepted Xhaka is 1.1 (57th) and Elneny 0.9 (66th). Again, it’s not enough of a contribution, especially when they’re not affecting much in an attacking sense, either.
Xhaka and Elneny are tidy passers but are not affecting enough in an attacking or defensive sense. Elneny, in particular, has improved and could become a better all-round defensive-minded, holding midfielder but for the new man in charge finding that Vieira-type figure is, once again, paramount.
The case for the defence
The knock-on effect of the above is that Arsenal’s already-weak defence is put under significant and disproportional pressure in almost every single match making overall organisation of the backline increasingly challenging.
Arsenal rank fourth in terms of passes completed by opposing teams 20 yards from goal with 179, behind Manchester City (90), Liverpool (136) and Tottenham (137). Which is pretty good, except they have the eighth-best goals against (46) and seventh-best expected goals against (43.47).
On average it takes opposing teams 3.89 passes inside the attacking third to score against Arsenal, for the rest of the top six it’s City 3.6, United 8.65, Liverpool 3.67, Tottenham 4.42 and Chelsea 5.67; City aside, who are so dominant at the other end it's not as much of an issue, teams just don’t have to work as hard to score against them.
Factor in that a worrying 71.7 per cent (33 of their 46) goals conceded have been from open play – the ninth worst in the Premier League – and the issue is further highlighted.
Laurent Koscielny remains their best defender and his individual numbers – tackles per 90 (1.7), interceptions per 90 (2.2), aerial duels won (3.2) and lost (2.5) – are roughly in line with the rest of his time in north London. But what’s around him is a problem.
Shkodran Mustafi leads the defence for tackles per 90 (2.6) and aerial duels won (4.9) but so much defensive organisation is built on confidence and chemistry and Koscielny and Mustafi’s seems to dissolve with every game.
Per Mertesacker is retiring, Nacho Monreal is 33 next February, Sead Kolašinac has been a disappointment, with confusion over his role, Héctor Bellerín has plateaued and may find more appealing challenges waiting for him elsewhere while Calum Chambers and Rob Holding remain works in progress.
On the face of it, investment is needed. However, this has been a recurring problem for Wenger since the dying embers of Sol Campbell’s Arsenal days. And given all the players mentioned are established internationals, the problem could be a collective issue rather than necessarily with the individuals.
The new man, especially if he is a skilled defensive coach, may find his defence just needs a bit of TLC and concentration on the training ground rather than that much of a radical overhaul.
When is it time to Čech out?
Petr Čech represents one of the few instances when Wenger held his hands up and admitted defeat in his steadfast beliefs. That is, signing a veteran to a large contract in a position that had been his Achilles heel for so long.
Wenger experimented with so many goalkeepers post-Jens Lehmann, Čech finally brought some familiarity and stability to the position.
Except, it is increasingly clear Čech is not the goalkeeper he was, having made six errors leading to goals – more than any other goalkeeper in the top flight. And while there may be a defensive upsurge in front of him, if matters are properly corrected, sooner or later his decline will become increasingly more apparent.
Arsenal concede at an average every 7.9 opposition shots; when compared to the rest of the top six – City (8.56), United (15.43), Liverpool (7.09 – who have their own problems in that position), Tottenham (9.76) and Chelsea (9.9) – it is concerning.
Čech is not solely to blame, but it does raise questions that if Arsenal had a younger goalkeeper with better reflexes, would they concede fewer?
What Čech does bring is his distribution, leading the league in throw-outs (208) while his accurate short passes per 90 (10.2) places him sixth among Premier League goalkeepers who have made five appearances or more.
His long passing, however, is not particularly eye-catching, with just 5.2 accurate per 90 and 8.2 kicked away to the opposition for an overall accuracy of 61.1 per cent. However, clearly that is not a priority in how Arsenal have played.
There is also the unseen and unquantifiable presence he brings to the dressing room in terms of his experience, which cannot be ignored, especially in such uncertain times.
But with his contract expiring next summer and his power gradually on the wane, Wenger’s replacement will need to decide quickly if the Czech is his future as well as his present, and if he’s not begin developing a long-term successor quickly.
Do the pieces fit?
Reportedly, the new man in the dugout will have a transfer fund of £50million this summer – notwithstanding any sales.
Given in an attacking sense they have Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Özil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Aaron Ramsey, Danny Welbeck, Alex Iwobi and the emerging Reiss Nelson, he will be blessed with a ready-made attack.
Since Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan’s arrival (with the Gabonese having significantly more impact than the Armenian) Arsenal have averaged 2.22 goals per game in the Premier League and their xG has been a healthy 1.86. They are a team who, more often than not, score.
Given the wage bill of this area of the field there won’t be much encouragement for new director of football Sven Minslintat to be identifying attacking signings, especially with pressing needs elsewhere.
But having so many attacking pieces to play with present its own problems. There aren’t many formations or systems – especially with Arsenal so fragile at the other end – that can accommodate the first five names, even four of that group.
Can Aubameyang and Lacazette play together? The pair have started just one league game alongside each other – the 2-1 defeat at Newcastle. And if they are paired, are you sacrificing an element of their ability by playing one out of position? Aubameyang started on the left of a 4-3-3 at St James’ Park.
If Özil is the designated playmaker, and as the club’s highest earner he has to be, where does Ramsey fit in? The Welshman can be outstanding but is a No.8 not a No.10 and when you start Özil can you afford to play Ramsey deeper without weakening yourself defensively?
Should Özil start every game? His propensity to drift out of view in the biggest matches always counts against him but he remains the Gunners' most skilled attacking weapon. Arsenal are just better with him on the pitch as he’s third in the Premier League in terms of key passes per 90 (3.5).
Finally, how to get the best out of Mkhitaryan? He has four assists in five starts, albeit three in the same game, but 2.0 key passes per 90 is second only to Özil. Wenger has played him on the right and left – and his flexibility is an asset – but when Lacazette’s role in tandem with Aubameyang is also factored in, where does he fit best?
It’s a nice problem to have but is a puzzle with many possible solutions. Some which will prove better than others.
It should also be considered that by next summer Özil and Mkhitaryan will be 30, Aubameyang 29 and Lacazette and Ramsey both 28. Their peak is now and there isn’t much time to figure everything out. The window to get the absolute maximum out of them isn’t wide and is shrinking.
Is Wilshere worth it?
It speaks volumes for where Jack Wilshere is in his career that he’s just over two months away from being a free agent and Arsenal appear to show little motivation in matching his financial expectations.
From bossing Barcelona to apathy in the Emirates Stadium boardroom, it’s been a strange decline for the one-time boy wonder and future of the club.
Arsenal have offered Wilshere £80,000-a-week, a figure that is relatively modest in terms of stature and where we imagined he’d be at the age of 26. Except, given he’s made just 11 Premier League starts this season, it would be difficult to justify anything more.
There is symbolism to retaining the midfielder. He is one of the few academy products to retain a place on their teamsheet regularly and does provide a sense of character and continuity but the fact remains, what would the new coach be getting?
In terms of full seasons, he’s hitting a career low in an Arsenal shirt for passes per 90 (60.7), although that does sound dramatic as it’s not a million miles away from his high of 2010/11 (64.6). While in key passes it’s also been his weakest at 1.0 per 90; his 2.5 in 2012/13 being a notable high.
The same can also be said for tackles per 90 (1.2), while his 0.6 interceptions per 90 are only slightly better than the 0.5 from 2013/14.
The only real metric he’s shown notable improvement is dribbling, at 3.5 successful dribbles per 90. His shooting (1.1 shots per 90) is roughly a median career average.
At his best he remains the most purposeful passer in the Arsenal team and provides energy that can link the midfield gatherers of Xhaka and Elneny with creators Özil and Ramsey. But as he enters what should be the best years of his career, where is the overall improvement?
Wenger was patient with his former prodigy but the new man in charge won’t possess that same degree of loyalty.