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Ultimate Test for Wenger awaits against Tottenham

Wenger Poch

 Arsenal have scored 10 goals in their last three Premier League matches. They have not kept a league clean sheet since December 16th, though they have in the Carabao Cup. In the January window, they signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

In those three league matches, Arsenal have collected just six points. The defeat came to Swansea City – who have barely scored a goal all season – when they managed to let three in. The other two matches saw some dazzling football from the Gunners as Crystal Palace and Everton were both swept aside within the opening 20 minutes of the respective matches.

The forward line Arsenal now have is up there with the best in the world. Aubaeyang and Mkhitaryan starred in the demolition of Everton, while Ozil has been at his typical, brilliant best of late orchestrating attacks from all over the pitch. Add to that the link-up play and third-man runs of Aaron Ramsey and you have quite a formidable line-up.

 

Can’t Please Everyone All The Time

 

The inevitable criticism of Arsenal’s signings still came. They did not reinforce their defence or deep-lying midfield in this window, despite the departure of Francis Coquelin and having the worst expected goals against of the top six.

Fitting Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Ramsey into one team is a near impossible, perhaps unnecessary, task. Depth is good, particularly with a schedule like Arsenal’s.

The trickier challenge is how many of the aforementioned players you can get into one team for the top six encounters. That is not just how many you can write on a piece of paper, but how can you combine the offensive majesty of Sunday afternoon with protection for a defence that is far from faultless.

Alex Iwobi joined Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Ramsey in the eleven on Sunday. Granit Xhaka played the supposed deep midfielder role. A combination of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 is certainly the way to go.

 

Altering Shape

 

That 4-2-3-1, though, is an immense risk when they face Tottenham next weekend. This is not only the biggest match of Arsenal’s season because it is a derby, but defeat would extinguish the faint flame of top four hope.

Tottenham have shown more defensive vulnerability this season than in the last two campaigns. Kyle Walker and Toby Alderweireld have been sorely missed.

Where Spurs are still effective is in the middle third, however. Whichever pair start of Mousa Dembele, Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama, the Lilywhites will make it far harder for Ozil to find pockets of space to receive the ball on the half-turn than Palace or Everton did.

To counter this, Arsene Wenger should consider a 4-3-3. Ozil can play in a free role from the left flank, with Mkhitaryan on the other side. In the absence of a natural ball-winner, an additional body is necessary. Ramsey, Xhaka and Jack Wilshere are still lacking that defensive nous, but the triumvirate would give Arsenal a better chance of controlling the game and forcing Spurs wide.

 

Moving a Magician

 

Shifting Ozil from the central role is a tough call to make, particularly as he has a better expected assists per 90 than anyone in the league, almost exclusively from that role. Naming an unchanged team – as is tempting when you have won 5-1 – would be playing into Tottenham’s hands. It either forces Ramsey into additional defensive work, which he simply isn’t very good at, or leaves plenty of space for Christian Eriksen, Dembele and Dele Alli to exploit.

Playing a 4-3-3 is not ideal. Ozil is less effective when needed in a wider position – and he will be forced to track a full-back –  but this is a result of Arsenal’s failure to address their defensive midfield weakness.

The other alternative is to play Mohamed Elneny ahead of Wilshere, which would allow Ramsey to play closer to Aubameyang. This would aid the defence, but Wilshere is far more likely to get the start if Iwobi is replaced.

 

Shrewd Compromise Required

 

Even with their winter acquisitions, finishing in the top four is improbable for Arsenal. This weekend could improve that probability, but so much of that depends on Wenger. All-out attack could work, and Wenger deserves praise if it does, yet if it fails, the criticism of their January business will be justifiably widespread.

As we saw at the Liberty Stadium, Arsenal’s defence is still sloppy too often. Sometimes that’s down to imbalance of the team, others it’s simple individual errors. There’s a risk of déjà vu at the Emirates. This attack should belong to an all-conquering team. Not addressing weaknesses at the base of midfield and in goal could undermine what is a potentially great side.

It is Wenger’s task to compensate for their frailties at the back. It will need compromise. It may impede on the joyous football seen against Everton, but it will avoid calamities like Swansea. Conceding less in a season than Leicester and Brighton is more important than scoring as many as Manchester City for Arsenal at the moment.

Wenger has dominated Tottenham for the majority of his Arsenal reign. Their victory at the Emirates earlier this season was significant for the rivalry, but this match is season, and career, defining.

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